Tuesday, September 27, 2011

From the Archive: Somewhere in Time (1980)

Very often, it appears that science fiction films are designed and mounted with a hard technological edge. It's easy to detect why this is so, and I imply no criticism of the fact.

Understandably, the specific, visual nature of the cinema offers the perfect opportunity to showcase state-of-the-art special effects, fancy modern vehicles, cool costumes and colorful flourishes. And the movies - a medium primarily of action and movement (hence the descriptor "moving pictures") -- also lend themselves organically to physical conflict: car chases, fisticuffs, sword-fights and the like.

Yet the upshot of this fact is that it's much easier to mount and sell a science fiction film about laser swords, superheroes, and transforming robot armies than one authentically about the mysteries of the human heart. A reliance on instrumentation (the camera) results, to a large degree, in a genre medium about instrumentation (batmobiles, HAL, atom bombs, etc.)

By explicit contrast, stories of the heart are always more difficult to dramatize...and downright chancy. In or out of the genre. The looming danger in crafting a truly emotional and romantic genre film is that by necessity it appeals to the emotions, not the intellect. And, well, some hearts are irrevocably...cold. Some hearts are guarded, impenetrable. And some are so stony and unresponsive that there's absolutely nothing that can be done to open them up.

To the cynical or mocking ear, sweet nothings and other deeply-held admissions of romantic affection shared between gazing and swooning lovers can sound alarmingly purple in perfectly-tuned stereo. These days, we love to say that such moments of romantic affection are "campy" or "corny" if they make a direct appeal to the heart. Witness the huge backlash against James Cameron's Titanic (1997). Recall also the accusing, snickering, pointed-fingers over Anakin's "sand" speech to Amidala in Attack of the Clones (2002).

These days, it's easier to blow up romantic leads (like Maggie Gyllenhaal in The Dark Knight) than to write heartfelt romantic dialogue for them.

Why is this so? A couple reasons, I suspect. But when it comes down to it, it may simply be this: love is a deeply personal thing. It's an emotion shared between two; one not easily transmitted between the masses via a technological medium. Film, after all, is homogenized, collaborative...technical. As an audience -- as a mob even -- we are primed to laugh, shriek and gasp. But not necessarily, to open ourselves up; to peel away our defenses.

Yet by the same token, who can truly deny that the best movies in history -- like real love itself -- transcend such barriers of the medium and thereby seem authentically...magical. How intellectual, for instance, is "chemistry" between two actors? How is that alchemical relationship quantified in scientific terms? Film records it; film registers it; film captures it. But people (the actors involved) make it happen. Sometimes they do so between the lines of dialogue.

I raise this meditation on love and film in connection with Somewhere in Time (1980), the romantic film based on Richard Matheson's 1975 novel Bid Time Return.

The premise is simply that a lonely, empty man, a writer named Richard Collier (Christopher Reeve) falls in love with a photograph of a radiant, long-dead stage actress, Elise McKenna (Jane Seymour). He becomes so consumed with her beautiful image, in fact, that he actually hypnotizes himself into time traveling from 1980 to 1912...to court her.

In other words, this film is one romantic notion constructed upon another romantic notion, constructed upon a further one. For some viewers in today's generally caustic pop culture, perhaps this is simply too much to accept.

Some viewers. But not me.

Gazing across the vast swath of time travel films, the queue is replete with efforts that boast epic, earth-shattering concerns. What if the time traveler changes our collective past? What if human history is altered? What if one action in the past changes everything that we have come to know? Indeed, this is the beauty, opportunity and terrain of time travel films as a format.

Yet, Somewhere in Time differentiates itself from the temporal pack by brushing aside such cosmic concerns. Here we are simply drawn into another life; another world....because of love. There are no explicit conversations about paradoxes, about time machines, or about any of the time travel boilerplate techno-jargon we have come to expect from the sub-genre. Rather, this film asks us to ponder a love so powerful, so out of the ordinary, that it reaches beyond the veil of our reality. This element imbues Somewhere in Time with some appreciable sense of the spiritual; of the longing for the impossible and the mystical in our every day lives.

A lush, almost impossibly affecting score from John Barry serves as our constant companion on this voyage to the distant, naive world of 1912. The setting -- a picturesque Grand Hotel -- is romantic in and of itself.  And the time period -- the last age of naivete and simplicity before the first "technological" war (World War I) -- also evokes feelings of innocence, simplicity and lyricism. It is a world without e-mail or television; without cell phones or other modern distractions. Against this backdrop, a man of the present and a woman of the past fall in love before our very eyes. And this is where you either accept the story the film wants to share with you, or you step back, harden your heart, and denounce it as cheesy and corny.

And, of course, some romance literature and film is legitimately cheesy.

But that's because it's done poorly. I don't believe that's the case with Somewhere in Time. Specifically, director Jeannot Szwarc has crafted his film with a subtle sense of visual classicism. Many of his compositions, particularly one involving the lovers, a lighthouse, the ocean and a beached rowboat, evoke real paintings from the bygone era.

For another thing, Szwarc marshals his camera in a stately, anticipatory way. Anyone who has been separated from a lover for some length of time will know what I suggest by this. Just watch the gorgeous scene and camera work involving Collier's first "real" view of Elise in 1912. We initially catch a glimpse of her in long shot, in the reflection of a window-pane, and then, as Collier pivots, we cut to this beautiful and stately moving shot -- over the landscape -- as an eclipsed female figure comes slowly into view, the sea visible behind her. The build-up is deliberate and glorious, and if you've known love, you get it and your heart beats faster. If not...you're reading the wrong review right now.

After this "reunion," we're into the meat of a star-crossed love story. It's well-written, but what we're ultimately left with is a rousing soundtrack augmenting the excellent chemistry between the two appealing leads. The late Christopher Reeve is at his goofy, innocent best. He was always wonderful and charming playing the fish-out-of-water, the man slightly out-of-step with his time and his world...and such is true here.

And Seymour, an ethereal, distant beauty, melts slowly and methodically, until she delivers a rousing, theatrical monologue about love that remains a high point for the actress in both this film and in her distinguished career. Again, if you think the words are cheesy, just consider the venue (the stage) on which this soliloquy is presented. Once more, Szwarc has done something more than modestly clever in his presentation.  He has provided a 1980s film audience with an old-fashioned pronouncement of love, but through the appropriate artifice of the 1912 stage. Seen in that light, everything is as it should be. Slightly larger than life.

I have concentrated in this review mostly on the romantic aspects of Somewhere in Time, and yet, in a sense that focus also does the film a disservice. Dig deeply into this movie, and you will find that it is teeming with ambiguities. For instance, ask yourself: where does the gold watch come from, originally? As the film opens in 1972, an elderly Elise McKenna gives a watch to young Richard Collier. She says the words "come back to me." After Collier has obliged, and traveled back to 1912, he gives the gold watch to Elise...so she can one day again give it to him as a gift. It's a mind-bender, because the watch seems to originate...nowhere.

Ask yourself too, what is the real role of Christopher Plummer's character, Robinson? He claims to know who Collier really is; and argues that Collier will "destroy" McKenna. In a sense, that's exactly what happens. When Collier is yanked back into the present, leaving McKenna behind...her career is ruined; she's depressed and lost.

So the question becomes: is Robinson a fellow time traveler (perhaps another man who has fallen in love with that photo of Elise?) or is he merely a worried theater agent, fretting about his meal ticket? To its credit, Somewhere in Time makes absolutely no comment on this debate. Rather, it lets you sift through the clues and arrive at your own conclusion.

I remember when Somewhere in Time was first released, quite a few critics seemed to have a big problem with the idea that Collier had hypnotized himself into traveling back through time. But today, after having read so much about quantum physics, I wonder why it is that we so readily accept the idea that a machine could achieve time travel. But our brains can't? I mean, a time machine is always invented by the human brain, isn't it? Our mental abilities are the root creative force in both instances. But I very much like the idea here that it is the brain - the dedicated, passionate, individual human brain - that makes the seemingly-impossible leap without benefit of hardware or instrumentation.

Because if you've ever been in love, you do feel like you can move mountains with your bare hands. So why not time travel for love too?


  1. Great review of an unabashedly romantic film (based on an unabashedly romantic novel by Richard Matheson). Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour really achieve one of the great passionate pairings on film with this one. Yeah, the film wears its heart on its sleeve, but if you have a romantic bone in your body, this one will touch it. Excellent look at this one, John.

  2. Hi Le0pard13:

    Thank you for the great comment, sir! I agree with your formulation that this is an unabashedly romantic film, and I really love it for that quality. Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour are terrific here, and it's just a shame the film wasn't better received.



  3. Anonymous7:21 AM

    Wonderful film, touching review. I remember this film being trashed in my local newspaper to the point I didn't see it on screen. Once I discovered it on VHS tape, I became a devotee. I've visited the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, and at the time of my visit (admittedly over a decade ago), they had a room dedicated to the film with pictures, props and the like. i wonder if it is still there...


  4. Hi Meredith,

    I'm glad you enjoyed the review, and more importantly, remember this romantic film fondly. I'm a devotee too, and I would love to visit the Grand Hotel. What a journey that must be...

    Every now and then, a perfectly romantic, unpretentious film like Somewhere in Time really feels cathartic and cleansing. I like to go back to this one at least once a year...

    Excellent comment!


  5. Anonymous12:49 PM

    Never understood the dislike for this movie. I'll take this over most romance films anyday of the week.

  6. Anonymous1:41 PM

    Great insight into a fantastic film. I first discovered this movie a few years ago and I had a hard time going into it believing that it would be as moving as some claim it to be. But sure enough, it weaved its magic. The music itself is incredibly moving, and suits the film perfectly. The chemistry is believable, unlike Attack of the Clones. And the dialog is heartfelt. The DVD has some interesting information regarding the creation of the film - it almost didn't happen, and Christopher Reeve played a large role in bringing it to light.

    Definitely worth watching again - in fact I've been wanting to see it again for a while now, and have been waiting to get in the right mood for it.

  7. Thanks, John. In case you were interested, Rachel and I looked at both the source novel and film in our duo post series earlier this summer.

  8. Thanks for reviewing this, John. I remember missing it in the theater, but seeing it on HBO in 1983. Like you, I was impressed with John Barry's score, which I thought was a vast improvement over the monotonous "The Black Hole" (I know we disagree on that one). And, I thought the chemistry between Reeve and Seymour was palpable, and could really feel for Reeve as he pined away for Elyse. A shame that Matheson hasn't managed to get the stage musical version he had planned completed.

  9. I am almost embarrassed to admit that this is one of my faves, but not quite. I watched this as a youngster because I "wanted to see Superman go back in time".

    This is a good little film. I love the time travel aspect. very simple, no flash, yet it is done well and you do not question it...too much at least. Jane Seymour is gorgeous in this film also.


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