Okay, Big Time Producer, let me give you my pitch. Imagine that H.G. Wells wasn’t just a science fiction writer, but he really made a time machine. And Jack the Ripper finds it, and uses it to come to modern-day San Francisco! And Wells has to track him down!
Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? There’s a lot you could do with such a great idea, with the world’s original serial killer transplanted to 70’s California, still wondering if the Zodiac Killer will strike again. There’s even more you could do with the futurist H.G. Wells getting to see what lies in the decades ahead, as things he predicted come true. For the man who “predicted” television and aerial warfare, and wanted his epitaph to be “I told you so, you damned fools” you could do a lot with a fictionalized character, especially when you’ve got Malcolm McDowell to play him.
But then you have the reality of Time After Time. I realize this is sort of a favorite among science fiction fans, and I was fond of it as a youth, but the film is rather tedious now. We begin in 1888, when the Ripper was at large in Whitechapel. We see a drunken prostitute stumbling out of a pub, from the perspective of the man who lures her to an alley and kills her. It’s rather tawdry and drawn out, her performance laced with a Richard Donner-esque feeling of late-70’s camp that infused the Superman movies. Visually it’s quite memorable, with the violence off-screen, the blood splattering the Ripper’s musical pocket-watch that he lets play while he performs his crimes.
From there, we meet H.G. Wells, who has invited his friends over to show them his invention, the time machine. Which he hasn’t been brave enough to use yet, but he explains every detail of how it works to his audience, so someone can steal it later. They pause to mock Wells’s visions of the future, before Scotland Yard shows up, asking to search the house because they’ve tracked the Ripper there. They find the bloody tools of his work in Dr. John Leslie Stevenson’s doctor bag, but he is nowhere to be found- once the police leave, Wells realizes that he escaped in his time machine.
Given the machine’s rather convoluted design, it requires two keys to operate, one of which causes an automatic return, and the other which turns you into TV static if removed. Actually it must cut the cosmic cord keeping you in your own time, or something as silly and complicated, but let’s just say the Ripper escapes, but the machine returns back empty, so Wells can hunt him down. It’s all an excuse to get two famous characters into modern times, so we might as well just accept it as such.
The script is a fine idea, but rather clumsily executed, as the best parts don’t involve chasing the Ripper at all, but seeing McDowell play Wells as the fish out of water, interacting with a future he expects to be a socialist utopia. The machine is cleverly housed in a museum exhibit in San Francisco, which gets us past the problems of how it can travel distances. So how does it work anyway? If someone destroys the machine in the future, and you travel there, do you die or can you never return? Don’t ask silly questions, just watch the movie. Amusingly enough, his desk is also in the exhibit and a fresh pair of glasses is in the drawer, opening all sorts of possibilities. Did he know he would have broken glasses and put them in the desk after he returned? Man, this movie is subtle… in fact the clever plotting of a time travel story is done so deftly, it’s as if they never even thought of these things. Which I am sad to say, is the most likely case.
Wells is played like a naive upper class near-twit by McDowell, but he’s always charming and amusing to watch. He doesn’t seem like a literary genius, however. The Ripper, played by David Warner, on the other hand seems to fit right in and has little trouble getting around and killing people despite the advances in police work since 1888. He even knows how to pick people up in discos, and has gathered a new bunch of mortician’s scalpels. This is the weakest part of the film; Warner plays the Ripper as your garden-variety psychopath, and is given very little depth. He’s not a charmingly evil gentleman monster, as you’d expect from an upper-class slasher who passes for a surgeon by day; not once do we glimpse his motives, even when he monologues to Wells in a motel room.
In a clumsy bit of overwrought dialogue that takes all of Warner’s skill to make passable, he says that the utopia Wells envisioned will never come to pass, and that the world embraces the violence of the Ripper now. He shows him a montage of war and crime on the television set to prove his point. This of course ignores that brutal genocidal war was not invented in the 20th century, and the Ripper was infamous for the gory excess of his crimes and not simply for being a murderer, as life was nasty brutish and short for ages before his arrival on the scene. In the 70’s the drug and crime wave we experienced after Hunter S. Thompson’s wave of 60’s optimism broke on the seawall of institutional greed and apathy really made pessimists of a lot of us. It certainly made pessimists of the scriptwriter, who decided this was the “era of the Ripper,” and the only marvels of modernity that impress Wells are the garbage disposal in the sink and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay bridge.
Mary Steenburgen plays a bank teller named Amy who shows Wells around town when he tries to convert 1800’s pounds sterling. She’s cute and delightful to watch, lecturing Wells about women’s lib before turning into typical slasher bait. This is one of her first roles and she’s quite good in it, capturing that 70’s “city girl” feel. She has the same affect on Wells, who falls in love with her after she “practically rapes” him, in her own words.
The movie plays a lot of in-jokes, such as Wells using the name Sherlock Holmes when he claims to be a detective, and the fact that he wears the same clothes throughout the film. He manages to drive a car at one point, rather well for a first timer, and under pressure no less. The film does play a few tricks on us, when we’re guessing if Amy is the Ripper’s next victim, and if Wells will travel back in time to save her. But they really never get too clever with the time travel stuff, like the Back to the Future movies, or the insanely complex movie Primer, which is really the ultimate time travel film (and made for only $7,000).
There’s some fun in the film, but in the end you’re seeing an Englishman from the 1880’s walk around 70’s San Francisco most of the time; the problem with a Jekyll & Hyde duo is that Jekyll is pretty boring compared to Hyde, even when he’s played well by Malcolm McDowell. They give Wells much more screen time, which is good because his bumblings are more entertaining than the bland Ripper scenes. Warner does the best he can, but he’s given very little to work with. Of course he’s defeated in the end, and the rather undeveloped Ripper gives a brief glance of remorse before he’s dispatched to infinity. Except it means very little, we haven’t seen him behave like a tortured madman, or beg Wells to stop him, so the payoff is cheap.
The Ripper meets Carol-Anne in TV static land.
The film is decent fun but not a classic by any means. There are few movies about Jack the Ripper worth watching, and this one is good entertainment. It was certainly more memorable than From Hell, which is probably sacrilege to some, but that movie put me to sleep. This one didn’t exactly thrill me, but it was a good way to kill some … time! ha, ha.