“Time After Time, 1979”

“Ninety years ago I was a freak. Today I’m an amateur.”

Time After Time, 1979 (Malcom McDowell), Orion Pictures

Let’s get this out of the way first. Before you can jump into Time After Time, you have to accept Nicholas Meyer’s curious (and entertaining) propensity for mixing real life and history with fiction. His novel and subsequent screenplay for The Seven-Per-Cent Solution permits us the conceit of imagining a world where Sigmund Freud co-exists with Sherlock Holmes. His follow-up, The West End Horror, also merges real people with fictitious characters as well. Once we get that out of the way, it’s easier to enjoy his clever directorial debut, Time After Time, based on an unpublished book by Karl Alexander. It isn’t enough for H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell resembling an owl) to be the celebrated author of The Time Machine, he must actually own such a device, which he proudly displays to colleagues and friends, among them a curious surgeon named John Leslie Stevenson (creepy David Warner).

In short order, Stevenson is revealed to be none other than Jack the Ripper when blood-soaked gloves are discovered in his medical bag, following a particularly vicious murder of a prostitute in Whitechapel. Stevenson, putting two and two together, uses Wells’ time machine to move forward into the future. The machine returns, minus one psychotic doctor, but he leaves a trail of breadcrumbs indicating where he went in time. Wells takes it upon himself to pursue Stevenson to the future, arriving in San Francisco in the year 1979. Wells considers himself a progressivist; a believer in “free love” but also eugenics. He thinks he will have no trouble adapting to what he assumes will be a new socialist utopia. He is horrified to discover quite the opposite, and interestingly, what terrifies him about this future, pleases Stevenson. When Wells confronts him, Stevenson informs him this future of violence and unrestrained sexuality is pretty much a shopping market for people like him.

Despite the rather bleak narrative, there are many moments of humor to be had in Time After Time. Wells must “barter with the natives,” so he hocks some antique jewelry. He goes to McDonald’s and is delighted to see that they serve (in addition to Big Macs and pommes frites) tea. He tracks Stevenson to a British bank where he exchanged currency with employee Amy Robbins (cute Mary Steenburgen). Amy, being a modern woman, flirts with and ultimately picks up Wells. She moves fast, and Wells is almost appalled at her advances and the gender-role switch, but he happily assents to her desires. Meanwhile, a rash of murders (similar in M.O. to Stevenson’s early Whitechapel work) are occurring in San Francisco, but are buried under the miasma of horrific violence in this future. Wells takes Amy three days into the future to convince her his time machine actually works. They discover, by way of a newspaper headline, she will be Stevenson’s next victim.

Time After Time is a fun, exciting movie–a time odyssey and a love story. McDowell and Steenburgen make for a surprisingly sexy, amiable couple. They would eventually marry, but then divorce after ten years. Meyer has an eye for unusual details. When Wells sells his jewelry, he notices the man examining the items has tattooed numbers on his arm, which he considers peculiar. While Wells would be considered a genius in 1893, he is uneducated and unprepared for what our future has in store. McDowell shows he can play against type. At the start of his film career, he specialized in portraying angry, disenfranchised young men. Warner would continue to play creepy characters. The next year, Steenburgen’s performance in the brilliant Melvin and Howard would win her the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Meyer would next direct Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and the chilling made-for-TV movie, The Day After. Meyer would serve as executive producer for the short-lived 2016 television series based on the movie.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

“Somewhere in Time, 1980”

“Forgive me. I have never known this feeling. I have lived without it all my life. Is it any wonder, then, I failed to recognise you? You, who brought it to me for the first time. Is there any way that I can tell you how my life has changed? Any way at all to let you know what sweetness you have given me? There is so much to say. I cannot find the words. Except for these: I love you”.

Somewhere in Time, 1980 (Christopher Reeve), MCA/Universal

Danny Peary, in his excellent Guide For The Film Fanatic, suggests that because Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour are so appealing in Somewhere in Time, the filmmakers should have dispensed with the script and simply shot the two leads making love in every room of the beautiful Grand Hotel. While a flippant and hilarious observation, I don’t know that I agree with Peary. The film was shown constantly on cable television. As a 12-year-old, I was bored with the movie. I didn’t understand the pacing and I had to ask my Mother why the narrative was so unusual. It’s supposed to be about time travel, so I think I was expecting something along the lines of Time After Time. She told me it was “romance,” and as such, followed the tropes and calculations of a fantasy/romance story.

An old woman slowly approaches aspiring playwright Reeve, hands him a pocket watch and whispers, “Come back to me.” Reeve is disturbed by this, to say the least, but he begins to feel a bizarre connection to the old woman. We flash forward some eight years later. Reeve is now a success but suffering writer’s block and a recent break-up, so he goes to the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, located between the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and St. Ignace on the mainland. I’ve been to Mackinac Island. The journey requires a treacherous (not to mention nausea-inducing) ride on a catamaran, but once you get there, it’s quite a sight. Despite the presence of modern automobiles in the movie, cars tend to be forbidden in keeping with the turn-of-the-century vibe, so generally you would see only horse-and-buggies.

At the hotel, Reeve spots a portrait of a beautiful woman with a mysterious smile on her face. With the help of an old bellhop (Bill Erwin), he discovers the woman in the photograph was an actress named Elise McKenna (Seymour) and that she was the old woman who gave him the pocket watch eight years before. Among her personal possessions, she kept a book about time travel, written by Reeve’s old college professor. He looks up the professor, and drops the ridiculous question, “Is time travel possible?” The professor clears his schedule for the day and runs Reeve through the basics of his theory of time travel. Let’s just put it this way: there is no time machine in this movie, but for Reeve’s horny brain! Basically, the idea is to “will” yourself into the past. You put on the right clothes for the time period, remove all extraneous reminders of the present-day from your field of view (this is important), and put yourself into a hypnotic trance. Rinse and repeat.

Reeve wakes up in 1912 at the Grand Hotel just in time to catch the final performance of a play starring Jane Seymour. He goes down to the lake front where she stands staring at the water. To his surprise, she sees him and asks, “Is it you?” It turns out she had been expecting to meet a man who would change her life forever. Her obsessive, controlling manager Robinson (Christopher Plummer) keeps trying to drive a wedge between Reeve and Seymour; all but telegraphing some kind of unrequited love and devotion under the pretense of protecting her interests, but it is striking to me how fiery and independent McKenna is as she rebels against him.

You made a time machine … out of a De Lorean?

Jeannot Szwarc directs an uneven script from Richard Matheson (based on his own book, Bid Time Return) and the movie suffers from the same problems a similar Matheson adaptation would have in the 1998 movie, What Dreams May Come. Spectacular, in a visual sense, and passionate at their respective cores, both movies cannot negotiate any dramatic strength and instead treat us to beautiful images and provide no explanation for the fantastical elements of the story, nor is there much in the way of logic to guide us through Reeve’s tormented psyche. The two leads are thoroughly engaging and they work hard to sell the idea, but it isn’t enough to carry the movie. I think Matheson (one of my favorite writers) deviated too much from his source material, yet his paradoxes (such as the pocket watch and the bellhop) are still intriguing.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.