Thursday, May 10, 2012

Wells after Ripper

I'd never have pictured Malcolm McDowell as H.G. Wells, or even as the hero of a movie, but he plays both in 1979's Time after Time. And he does a good job, as does David Warner as Jack the Ripper. It's a movie with a gleeful lack of modesty, and mostly it's fun, in some ways clever, but also obtrusively dumb and formulaic in others.

The story is that H.G. Wells has actually built a time machine, and he invites some friends over to see it, off-handedly referring to the fact that the bright white illumination in his basement is courtesy of Thomas Edison's new electric light.

When in reality, bulbs weak by to-day's standards were considered obnoxious by many critics of the electric light, the rather modern looking, pervasive white light is barely acknowledged in the movie. There's an attempt at historical accuracy, or at least credibility, by name checking Edison, but the movie really oughtn't to have bothered. When we're talking about H.G. Wells pursuing Jack the Ripper to 1979, I don't think most people are going to get hung up on the fact that Wells has a pretty well lit basement.

The Ripper is amongst Wells' guests, though Wells doesn't know it. He knows him as Dr. John Leslie Stevenson, a prominent surgeon who always beats Wells at chess.

The police track Jack to Wells' house after the time machine demonstration, and the doctor steals it to get away, thus beginning the chase plot. The machine has a lot of plot convenient eccentricities--it has a big key in its side the Ripper immediately asks about that can cause the death of the would-be time traveller if it's simply pulled out. It's like having a destruct button on the trunk of your car. Good idea.

I liked Wells when he's in the future, trying to track down the Ripper. He's not completely unable to handle his surroundings, unlike people from the past in other science fiction stories, who often seem to be all but crippled by the sounds of cash registers. Wells finds the stuff strange, but he's smart and quickly adapts. He meets Mary Steenburgen at a bank, and the two of them have a lot of cute dialogue, from his attempt as a Victorian advocate of women's liberation dealing with her candid sex talk. The movie's set in San Francisco, where Wells' machine resides in a museum--apparently the machine transports the traveller to where the machine is in the future.

Wells tracks the Ripper down with Steenburgen's help, a kind of clever bit of writing--she changes pounds to dollars for British travellers at the bank, and she handled the Ripper's money before Wells and recommended a hotel to the Ripper. Of course, there's no mention of the fact that the two men are using currency that doesn't resemble British currency in 1979, but at least we established that Edison made Wells' basement light.

Mostly the plot mechanics are one bit of dumb after another. When the Ripper's hit by a car and taken to the hospital, a nurse coldly walks away when Wells, seeking to view the Ripper's corpse, tells her he's not family and that the man "has no family". She walks away in disgust from the one man who has information on their John Doe because he says he's not family. This is of course just to provide an excuse for Wells and Steenburgen to go on dates even though the Ripper's still running loose.

Later, when Wells demonstrates his time machine to her and they discover that she's killed by the Ripper a day before the point in the future where she and Wells travel to, he for some reason persuades her to go back to before her murder, and then a series of unlikely developments occur to place her at the exact place and time of her murder, despite the fact that she knows about it beforehand.

But the leads are sweet, and the movie has a bit of charm. Director Nicolas Meyer is good at creating tense, exciting situations even when they don't actually make sense. I sort of have to like a movie, too, that references both Vertigo and The Red Shoes.

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