If we were talking about the all-time great concepts for sci-fi films, we would probably end up talking about Time After Time. I would insist upon it. I'm sorry, but there simply can not be a conversation about the most inventive films to tackle time travel without mention of the film in which famous author H.G. Wells uses his (totally real) "time machine" and chases Jack The Ripper to San Francisco of the late 1970s.
Yes, you read that right.
The directorial debut of Nicholas Meyer - who would follow this success with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan - is a one of a kind sci-fi romantic comedy. In it, The Ripper escapes from the police by slipping into Wells' most famous invention during a dinner party. Thankfully, a plot device loophole allows the machine to return to the writer, which means he can follow the killer and attempt to bring him to justice. Because that's that a noble Englishman would do in that situation, naturally.
Malcolm McDowell stars as Wells, who doesn't exactly adjust to the twentieth century with ease. The film takes on a very comedic tone as the distinguished gentleman tries to catch up with the times, and much of the film's first act is comprised of interactions that end with McDowell acting shocked to learn about things like McDonalds or the second World War or women's liberation. The actor, who most have come to think of in more serious roles, seems to be having a lot of fun in the role when he needs to. At the same time, his serious side is visible when he tries on his detective skills, making this vision of H.G. Wells a memorable and loveable character.
McDowell's success as Wells is amplified by the work Mary Steenburgen does as the "modern" woman who becomes a) his love interest and b) his instructor on the ways of the 1970s. The actress, known primarily to me for her later work in comedies and her somewhat abrasive voice, is given a lot to work with as an empowered young businesswoman who doesn't shy away from taking the lead with an "attractive" man. The character isn't an overly comical addition to the tongue in cheek film, but many of the tricks used to show her beliefs - like a comment on lesbianism that would get modern movies heckled - have an edgy side to them.
And, of course, a Jack The Ripper movie isn't complete without Jack, who is played here by the fantastic David Warner. Warner has long been one of my favorite character actors, but his sinister turn as the killer here is easily my favorite piece of his work that I've seen. Unlike Wells, Warner's Ripper seems instantly at home in modern society, and resumes his deadly hobby. A greatly effective scene early in the film has Warner flipping TV channels and explaining to Wells that he belongs in this world - because there's violence on almost every channel. (The exception, of course, is the channel that featured the gentleman's game of football.) Warner's controlled emotions and his command over every line of dialogue - I swear, the best casting ever was him as a drama professor in Scream 2 - are the perfect attributes for a modern day Ripper.
With the three fantastic characters being realized through fantastic performances, the only other thing Time After Time has to do is become a thrilling sci-fi tale. And, believe me, it soars off the screen in that regard. Meyer's film runs near two hours, but the pace is cracking and everything seems to be put into its proper place. The mystery and the romance never get in each other's way, and there's plenty of room to fit the comedy and the killing into their proper places. It's not an epic piece of drama or a technical masterpiece in any regard, but it's just a ton of fun to watch because it moves with such confidence through the story.
There simply isn't another movie that does what Time After Time does as well. It seems that filmmakers, especially today, are always trying to find new ways to rewrite history and to make historical characters interesting in their own ways. For my money, none of them have matched the whimsical charm of Time After Time. It's one of the most must-see science fiction tales I've ever known; packed with enough action, romance, and drama to please fans of any age.