In 1893, in London, Herbert George Wells (Malcolm McDowell) shows off his time machine to his sceptical dinner guests. He is explaining the non-return key that keeps the machine at its last destination, and the vaporizing equalizer that keeps the time-machine and the time-traveller together, when the doorbell rings and it is the police, looking for Jack the Ripper. They find a bag containing blood-soaked gloves belonging to one of Wells’ guests (David Warner),which indicates that he, John Leslie Stevenson, is the killer. Wells rushes to his lab and finds the time-machine gone.
Stevenson has escaped into 1979, but without the non-return key, the machine returns home to 1893. Dismayed that he has unleashed a killer upon the future utopia, Wells climbs into the machine and pursues him. The machine is on display at a museum in San Francisco. Wells is surprised that 1979 is not the socialist utopia he predicted, but pretty grimy and sad and violent.
In an antique shop, he exchanges some antique British bank notes for American money. He dines at McDonalds and is pleased that French fries are just like the Pomme Frites of 1890’s France. He figures that Stevenson would also need to exchange his money, so he asks about him at various banks. In the Chartered Bank of London, he meets Amy Robbins (Mary Steenburgen), who directs him to a nearby hotel, where he finds his long-time friend. Stevenson will not go back because he is quite happy in 1979. Ninety years ago, he was a freak, but today he’s just an amateur.
Stevenson tries to grab the key and they struggle for it. They are interrupted by the maid and Stephenson escapes and is hit by a car. Wells follows him to the hospital and comes to the conclusion that Stephenson has died. Wells meets up with Amy again and she comes on to him in a modern way. He is a little shocked, but very pleased.
Stephenson deduces that Amy from the bank had led Wells to him, and he finds out where she lives. Wells proves who he is by taking Amy three days into the future, where she finds her own murder reported in the newspaper. They try to tell the police, who do not believe a word of it, and Wells is arrested because Stephenson has killed someone and Wells is obviously a loonie. When the police finally check out Amy’s apartment, they find the dismembered body of a woman. They decide that Wells is not the San Francisco Ripper because they had him in custody at the time, ad they let him go. He is of course, heartbroken.
But Wells is contacted by Stephenson, who had killed Amy’s friend in her apartment, and wants to exchange Amy for the time-travel key. After the trade, Stephenson takes the key and holds onto Amy. Wells pursues them to the museum where the machine is located. She manages to escape Stephenson’s clutches, but he starts up the time-machine. Wells quickly removes the vaporizing equalizer and Stephenson is sent travelling forever through time without the machine. Wells will now return to his own time to destroy the dangerous machine. Amy wants to go with him as she is not in love with the 20th Century either. Maybe she will change her name to Susan B. Anthony.
Time travel movies come in three types: 1) Adventures in strange places, 2) Complex time-travel puzzles, and 3) Romances, since what is better than Time to prove that the course of true love never did run smooth, as Lysander said in A Midsummer Night’s Dream? This charming, exciting, and funny movie is all three. It was written and directed by Nicholas Meyer, his first film, based on ideas from Karl Alexander’s novel, and a story by Steve Hayes. The beginning is quite similar to that of 1960’s The Time Machine by George Pal and goes on a different tack from there.
Malcolm McDowell, wanted to play Wells in this movie because it was so different from his last leading role—in Caligula. He studied Wells’ voice on a 78 RPM recording but was appalled at its high, squeaky tone and the Cockney accent, so he just went with a kind of British academic’s voice. Director Meyer and producer Henry Jaffe fought for David Warner instead of Mick Jagger for Stephenson, as the studio wanted. The music was the last movie score composed by Miklos Rozsa, which won the 1979 Saturn Award. It was filmed all over San Francisco (I kept recognizing places) and in London rooms based on those in 1960’s The Time Machine.
Mary Steenburgen spoke of the similarity between this role and hers in Back to the Future III. It was not a coincidence. There are also similarities to Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, partly written by Nicholas Meyer. He won the Saturn Award for best writing and Steenburgen won for Best Actress. The movie got four other nominations, including Best Science Fiction Film. The movie inspired Cyndi Lauper’s song Time After Time. There was a deleted scene in which Wells ran into a punk playing loud music on a bus.