Last night Essie I and traveled back to 1979 to watch TIME AFTER TIME, the directorial debut of Nicholas Meyer, featuring Malcom McDowell, a very young Mary Steenburgen, and the recently late David Warner. This was one of those very talked-up, log-rolled pictures back in the day, receiving glowing notices from the critics, that now seems largely forgotten. Film criticism was not then the lost art that it is today, film critics had not yet become mere shills for the huge corporate conglomerates that now own the studios; even so I had already learned a healthy mistrust of certain critical types. Janet Maslin of the (New York) Times thought it was terrific, and I respected her opinion a lot; still, I stayed away from this one, until now.
It was probably for the best; there’s much more to appreciate about TIME AFTER TIME in 2023, with the movie industry in absolute tatters, than there was in the late seventies, when far better movies were still relatively abundant.
It's very much “all right.” Meyer does love those High Concepts, and that's fine; but this one involves Jack the Ripper, a figure who is probably not as “old hat” nowadays as he was in ’79. In Victorian England, yet-to-be Famous Novelist H.G. Wells has invented a real Time Machine, which the nefarious Jack avails himself of to escape apprehension. Wells (McDowell) then pursues Jack through time, which might have been an even higher concept if that pursuit wasn’t confined to 1979 San Francisco.
Meyer instinctively knows how to tell a story and frame a shot, which guarantees a strong first effort, but a visual stylist he is not. In a way, that made him perfect for STAR TREK a couple of years later, because he brought to the table everything they needed and nothing that they didn't need. But this picture? It really could have used the visual flair of a Terry Gilliam. Just as an example, the Victorian scenes look dreadful: very artificial and inauthentic. The time machine itself looks as if it’s made of plastic, which it probably was. A good production designer could have concealed this; perhaps the studio was not entirely convinced that Meyer, who rose to sudden fame with a clever pastiche novel about Sherlock Holmes, could hold down a picture with a larger budget.
Warner is fine, Steenburgen is TERRIFIC, but McDowell looks like a fish out of water. He was trying to shed the mayhem that saturated his acting image thanks to a certain couple of movies, and this doesn’t quite do the trick. He’d already attempted this to greater effect a year earlier, in SHE FELL AMONG THIEVES, a terrific television melodrama starring Eileen Atkins in the villainous, Cruella DeVille-type of role, but neither part succeeded in washing Alec or Caligula from his shadow, did they? Not all that long after, he was back to Evil Things like killing Captain Kirk and harassing Tank Girl.
Meyer really is kind of the smartest guy in the room, and yet he still can't come up with a time travel story that isn't riddled with gaping holes. It's just the nature of the beast.