Play It Again is a weekly feature in which our classic-film connoisseurs revisit a revered motion picture from the annals of movie history, to see if it holds up… or if it has aged terribly. And yes, it takes its name from a famously misquoted Casablanca line (hey, whatever; it fits!).
Nicholas Meyer‘s debut feature, much like the protagonist of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, seems to have come unstuck in time. Despite an ingenious concept executed with charm and further elevated by its performers, Time After Time has not developed any fervent following like other sci-fi flicks of the same era. I’m not necessarily referring to deserving cult-builders like Solaris and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. For instance, how on earth are there still collectables from the penis-obsessed John Boorman flop Zardoz available online, yet an utterance of this title returns quizzical looks?
It’s no masterpiece, but the nifty conceit alone makes it an intriguing and appealing venture. Malcolm McDowell stars as H.G. Wells, who has just whipped up a time machine and is showing it off to his high-society buddies when the bobbies bust into his apartment looking for Jack the Ripper. They soon realise that Wells’ frenemy Dr. John Stevenson (David Warner) is in fact the sex-worker-slaughterer, and has used the aforementioned invention to elude capture. H.G. boldly follows him to his destination: San Francisco, 1979. It’s not quite the socialist paradise he had predicted – nor did his supposition that war would be a thing of the past come true – but he is fascinated with motorcars, a popular Scottish restaurant named McDonalds, and a beguiling, independent bank employee named Amy Robbins (Mary Steenburgen). She’s similarly captivated, and they share a whirlwind romance, while Wells’ keeps an eye on the papers for news of any further murders.
It’s all directed capably by Meyer – who based his screenplay on Karl Alexander’s then-unfinished novel – even if the final face-off between the adversaries practically sputters to a stop. The interplay between McDowell and Warner is electrifying, however. I particularly enjoyed Warner’s bewildered, gentlemanly Ripper reflecting on the bounty of riches he’s happened upon in Godless San Fran: “Ninety years ago I was a freak. Today I’m an amateur.” McDowell’s foppish Wells is a likable, comically ill-equipped romantic hero, though knowledge of his real relationship with wife Amy Robbins – who let the lothario carry on affairs throughout their marriage – makes the depiction ring a little false. The 26-year-old Steenburgen is such a gorgeous, adorable foil; perhaps I just felt betrayed on her hypothetical behalf.
Meyer would follow it up with a legitimate science fiction classic (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan) but Time After Time is still a fun fish-out-of-water flick that deserves more attention than it has received in the thirty years following its release. But there’s still plenty of time for that.
Time After Time can be streamed instantly on Quickflix PLAY.