In his long career, this impressive, thoughtful artist has directed some great movies, not to mention more than one cultural touchstone. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) and The Day After (1983) are just two of his better-known titles, but Meyer also directed the creepy and critically well-received Pierce Brosnan thriller about an Indian thug cult, The Deceivers (1988) and the last Star Trek film featuring the original cast, The Undiscovered Country (1991).
And then, of course, there's the classic Time After Time (1979), perhaps Meyer's most finely-crafted feature. It's a stirring, amusing, romantic adventure that not only straddles time periods with brawny inspiration, but also bridges the intertwined genres of horror and science fiction. In essence, the story depicted in the film might be described as H.G Wells versus Jack the Ripper against the backdrop of disco decade San Francisco, but that high-concept log-line hardly does this remarkable film justice.
Time After Time opens in Victorian England in November of 1893 -- in a dark, misty alley -- with the latest in a series of violent prostitute murders committed by Jack the Ripper (David Warner). Soon after the horrific crime (conducted in point-of-view subjective shot), the film cuts to the home of inventor, socialist and author, H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell).
An advocate of women's lib (or rather "free love") among other things, Wells speculates that in three generations (roughly seventy-five years...), mankind will dwell in a perfect paradise of equal rights and equal justice for all. H.G. believes himself "a man of the future" and has decided, in fact, that he belongs there. To accomplish that end, this visionary has created a time machine to carry him to his appointed destiny. He explains all of this during a dinner party, and one of his guests, a lanky surgeon named John Leslie Stevenson -- actually the Ripper, himself -- arrives late. During a game of chess, Stevenson contradicts Wells' hopes for the future, and insists that mankind - basically nothing more than an animal - will never change.
Still, Stevenson is very interested in the operation of that time machine...
When inspectors from Scotland yard arrive at Wells' house hot on the trail of the Ripper, Stevenson steals away into the basement...and vanishes into the future using Wells' time machine. Realizing the terror he has unloosed into the future ("a utopia!"), Wells pursues Stevenson to November 5, 1979.
However, the world of the future is not at all what Wells imagined. In fact, the far-flung year of 1979 is not a paradise but rather a cruel, uncaring place. On the first night in his "utopia," Wells is thrown out of a Church ("closing time!") and he sleeps on a park bench. The lone exception to this rule is a lonely, divorced woman named Amy Robbins (Mary Steenburgen), who takes an immediate liking to Wells, a real fish-out-of-water in this "brave new world." She is drawn to him because of his "little lost boy" quality.
At the heart of Time After Time rests a debate about human nature and the "evolution" of the species. It's a question we all ask, from time to time: what does the future hold? Over a hundred years ago -- before both World Wars -- Wells' believed in the best angels of man's nature, that social justice would eventually arrive and make a paradise of Earth. But Jack the Ripper had an opposing, dark vision. The film makes much of these duelling world views; of these contradictory perspectives.
"I'm home," Jack the Ripper informs H.G. Wells when they meet in a hotel room in 1979. "Ninety years ago, I was a freak. Today...I'm an amateur."
That's not only a terrific line of dialogue, it serves nimbly as an indictment of the twentieth century, and the Ripper (using a TV remote control...) takes Wells on a guided tour of our ongoing atrocities as a race. Images flash on the TV screen before Herbert's startled eyes; newsreel images of an assassination, a violent cartoon, a football game, and tanks rolling irrevocably to war.
"You haven't gone forward, you've gone back" Jack the Ripper assures his nemesis, noting persuasively that man has not changed in three generations....only his technology. Now man has merely grown "more efficient" in expressing his violent urges.
H.G. Wells realizes, in the end, that his enemy may be correct, that the scourge of violence is "contagious." Yet in his encounter with Amy, a "20th century woman with a mind of her own," Wells finds solace, companionship and love. "Every age is the same," he finally admits in his last debate with the Ripper, "it's only love that makes them bearable."
That romantic notion, the thought that concludes Time After Time, is perfectly placed to help Wells achieve a moral (as well as physical) victory over the brutish, cynical Ripper, and it's a point worth considering. Perhaps the world is changed for the better one person at a time; one relationship at a time. Maybe personal utopia is possible; even if social justice remains perpetually just out-of-reach.
Viewing Time After Time today (nearly thirty years after its release), it may dawn on you that the film is an almost-perfect -- and highly-pleasing -- blend of science fiction, romance, humor and horror: the brand of expertly-paced, full-throated, "whole" entertainment that we don't often get in our studio releases today. The film's fish-out-of-water element works extremely well, aided primarily by Meyer's canny and oft-used first person subjective camera, which reveals to the audience the "wonders" of 1979 directly. This is true particularly in moments such as Wells' harrowing first cab ride through downtown San Francisco. There's also a brilliantly-staged (and tense) chase through an outdoor shopping district; one that makes adroit use of aerial shots, a moving camera and even long shots.
There are some great character moments here too, from Wells' bewildered first visit to a McDonald's restaurant to his shock at what "free love" (or women's lib) hath ultimately wrought. In one splendid and amusing scene (over lunch), Amy is more than forthright with the naive time traveler about her sexual history and desires. She unleashes a veritable litany of graphic sexual jargon that practically turns the staid author white-faced. Yet the scene isn't raunchy or bawdy. It's actually sweet and innocent, thanks to Steenburgen's sincere playing of the material. The scene, like so much of the film, is quirky, provocative, and focuses a laser beam on the film's narrative point: the distinct social differences between then (1893) and now (1979). You can see in all this material, by the way, the seeds of the time travel humor in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986), which Meyer co-wrote.
The writing in Time After Time is so strong, so intelligent, and the performances so compelling and personable, you can't help but fall in love with these characters (even the cunning, self-loathing Ripper). Because the audience feels so engaged, even a a rather routinely-staged car chase at the climax -- one wherein 19th century Wells learns to drive a Honda -- gets elevated to the realm of stirring, almost inspiring thrill-ride. You're really pulling for Wells; you've become invested in his quest.
It's only fair to note, too, how cleverly the screenplay reflects the details of Wells' biography (and his prophecies). This is the visionary man who wrote the futuristic story of the Morlocks and the Eloi; of the strong and monstrous "feeding" upon the weak and beautiful. In Time after Time, with the predator Jack the Ripper loose in post-Watergate San Francisco and "hunting" unsuspecting women, you can detect the roots of that tale, at least in terms of metaphor. In hisThe Shape of Things to Come, Wells envisioned TV sets, air war, and more, and Time After Time obligingly provides him access to knowledge of such things. He sees a jet liner go overhead; witnesses (through news footage) tanks on the attack; and watches television.
Also, in the aforementioned Things to Come, the pacifist Wells comes perilously close to advocating for (admittedly benevolent) dictatorship achieved through pseudo-violent means, a paralyzing "gas of peace" dropped on whole populations to pacify them. Given Wells' experience with the locals in Time After Time, in which law enforcement is next to useless and citizens distract themselves with vapid TV (we get to watch a commercial about constipation...), one can sort of understand how a peaceful philosopher might have come to believe that utopia would -- by necessity -- have to be enforced on a hedonistic, violent, distracted population.
One element of the future that Wells did not accurately predict -- indeed could not have predicted -- was the rise of the entity known as the corporation; and one has to wonder if the blazing ascent of Big Business in the last hundred years is the key component that has prevented the author's social utopia from becoming real in our world today. Time After Time genuflects to this key aspect of modern life too, when Wells notes gloomily that it is "money that makes the world go 'round."
Time After Time also offers a trippy, psychedelic portrayal of time travel -- a kind of audio tour of twentieth century high (or low) points, from World War I thru Watergate -- accompanied by a 2001-style montage of swirling images and colors. But it's not the special effects, or even, ultimately, the action sequences, that render this film a "timeless" offering.
Rather it's Nicholas Meyer's economical, concentrated direction (and writing). He never loses sight of the film's most important dynamic: the balancing of a man "before his time," a great optimist (Wells), against a man "ahead of his time," a terrible cynic (Ripper). I also believe Meyer found a fantastic (and human) way to make a film about "today" that is neither depressing nor pessimistic, all-the-while maintaining a rigorous intellectual honesty.
True, today's world is a lot closer to Jack the Ripper's utopia than to H.G. Wells ideal. Yet by focusing on an individual love story, Meyer has demonstrated something else too. Oh sure, we may be as violent as we were a hundred years ago (or more so, even.) But as this film reminds us so clearly, our connection to those we love can prove the very impetus we need to accomplish great deeds; to find heroism within and defeat evil. That's just how it happens with human nature I guess, again and again, time after time...