It could be the film that the term high-concept was made for; H.G. Wells chases Jack the Ripper through time from Victorian England to 1970s San Francisco where he continues his killing spree.
It’s a brilliant idea that Wells actually built a working time machine, rather than just wrote about it, here very steam punk looking and heavily influenced by the likes of The Nautilus in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Tracked down by the Victorian police Jack the Ripper, otherwise known as Stephenson, a close friend of Wells, steals it and the chase is on.
Featuring Malcolm McDowell in his American film debut as H.G. Wells, until this time he was chiefly known for his villainous roles, especially in A Clockwork Orange, so this was a brave and successful departure, especially as the studio initially wanted Derek Jacobi for the role.
There is also a masterful portrayal of the Ripper by the great David Warner, who was previously best known for losing his head in The Omen, and was a far superior choice to Mick Jagger who the Studio were hankering after. As an aside it does also feature Cory Feldman in his first ever film role!
With the subject matter of THE Jack the Ripper running amok in 70s San Francisco, the same town as frequented that decade by the real Zodiac Killer and in the age of the dawning stalk and slash genre, not to mention the exploitation likes of The New York Ripper, it’s a very low key affair as you don’t see any stabbing as such, it’s all left to the imagination and is the better for it.
For both McDowell and the film’s Director, Nicholas Meyer, this his first dabble in Sci-Fi but went onto helm the rather marvellous Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek 6: The Undiscovered Country, Time was more or a love story between Herbert George Wells and Amy Robins, played by Mary Steenburgen, who clearly enjoyed the romantic time travel shenanigans so much that she did it all again some 20 years later in Back to the Future Part III. Mixing fact and fiction it is interesting to note that Amy Robins was the actual name of Well’s real life second wife.
It turned out that life imitated art though as both McDowell and Steenburgen fell in love on set and ended up getting married.
This intriguing yarn wasn’t Meyer’s first dabble with melding famous Victorian characters though as he’d already won great plaudits for his meeting of Sherlock Holmes and Sigmund Freud in his previous film, The Seven Per Cent Solution, which was considered to be one of the best ever Sherlock Holmes stories not written by Conan-Doyle. Nicholas also returned back to time travel and San Francisco in 1986 as he also co-wrote Star Trek: The Voyage Home.
As well as being tense and highly original the film is also highly entertaining and features some good, unlike Les Visiteurs and its American remake, funnily enough featuring Mr McDowell, time travel related humour. These include a visit to McDonalds and giving the police the fake alias of Sherlock Holmes. There are countless ‘little’ fun parts like this in the film which makes it a pleasant and entertaining one to watch as well as a tense nail biting thriller.
However the two genius aspects of the script that help raise it above the usual time travel fare and help keep it an arresting over 30 years later are the effect the latter 20th century has on the two male leads.
Wells looked upon the future as a Utopia and whilst Wells is shocked to find, certainly after the horrors of World War 2, that the World is nothing like his imagined Utopia, the film even neatly riffing on images from his other work in Things to Come, sending Wells up majestic escalators and giant glass lifts.
On the other hand Jack fits right in and positively embraces the chaos and violence of the 20th century in a brilliant scene with Stephenson zapping through the TV channels in his hotel room and finding violent image after violent image, here Jack is very much at home and it is Wells who is out of his time. It’s rather fitting then that in ‘From Hell’ Jack the Ripper even states that he had invented the 20th century.
The special effects aren’t all that special to be honest, especially in the wake of Star Wars two years earlier, but that is kind of missing the point. The fun and quaintness of the effects actually endear the film to you even more and help give it that more classic Hollywood feel as if it were from an age before it was made. It certainly looks more stylistic than dated today and just adds to the whole undeniable charm to the whole proceedings.
It’s not action packed, so don’t go expecting The Terminator, but it certainly never has any dull moments and the unique story keeps you intrigued. It’s more about the battle of wits between these two men, much like Trek 2 was about pitting Kirk against Khan.
With its Saturday afternoon matinee feel, clever concept, engaging leads, humour, romance, science fiction and dose of social commentary it’s all intelligent stuff that is well written that ensures the film remains more than just a curiosity and essential that you should make time for Time After Time.