*. So here’s the thing: You’re going to make a movie about how the author H. G. Wells, author of The Time Machine, made a real time machine, which was then used by Jack the Ripper to escape Scotland Yard by zooming off to present-day San Francisco. Who will you get to play Wells? He’s a bit nerdy, bespectacled, and a poor physical specimen generally, but a genuine liberal intellectual. What say you?
*. It’s an impossible thought experiment forty years later, but I’d wager that if you could enter into the spirit of the thing Malcolm McDowell would not appear on your short list of possible candidates. Writer-director Nicholas Meyer had thought of Derek Jacobi at first, being a big fan of I, Claudius. Meanwhile McDowell was, as he admits on the DVD commentary, best known for the heavy parts he’d been doing (and which he’s still most closely identified with). Indeed, he had just finished playing Caligula, quite a different sort of Roman emperor than Claudius. So then . . . H. G. Wells. Why not?
*. I think it’s crazy, but it works. McDowell has played more memorable roles, but I like him more in this movie than in anything else I’ve seen him in. Restraining his slightly wild intelligence in Victorian dress and manners makes for a great bit of countercasting. He also goes well with Mary Steenburgen (who he would go on to marry), playing manic against her sleepy cool. Their chemistry is real, and remains one of the things audiences like the most about the film. It was also essential, since the liberated Amy falls in love with Herbert and hops into bed with him basically at first sight, which is otherwise hard to credit.
*. The quality of Amy’s feminism, seen in our rearview mirror, is kind of sad. When Herbert tries to get her to return with him to his life she responds that “I’m a twentieth century woman. I have a career and a mind of my own. Be reasonable. How am I gonna make it in 1893?” All to the good. But then Herbert counters with “Is your work so important? It’s your life we’re talking about.” This draws forth her declaration “My work is my life! As much as yours or any other man’s.” Her work is her life. As a bank clerk. Not to knock being a bank clerk, but it’s hard to imagine any man or woman today seeing such a claim as “My work is my life!” as liberating.
*. David Warner plays well off of McDowell as well. To return to the point I began with about McDowell’s being cast against type, couldn’t you just as easily see him as Jack the Ripper? But instead it’s the stolid Warner, who never appears to be losing it. Even his final destruction is accomplished with a look more of resignation than horror. Meyer had told him to play it as an exhausted man. Is this the end? So be it.
*. As an aside, Meyer says on the commentary that Warner’s little nod is “stolen from The Third Man.” I have a hard time making that connection.
*. Warner’s Ripper also gets the movie’s most thoughtful lines, when he explains to Herbert how the world has not progressed, at least morally, and that as a homicidal psychopath he belongs, “completely and utterly,” in the twentieth century, Which is a lot more than can be said for the Victorian Wells, despite all of his (formerly) progressive views. Warner even looks at home in a disco. I can’t imagine McDowell, with or without the glasses and moustache, at one of those.
*. I think Pauline Kael sort of missed the boat on these performances. She complains that “McDowell’s shy, flustered Wells doesn’t fit the Wells of our recollections,” but I don’t know whose recollections those would be, or what they would be based on. Presumably more myth than reality. Then she finds Warner “too frighteningly sociopathic to fit into the film’s romantic framework.” If anything, his sociopathy is remarkably genteel. I do, however, get a chuckle out of Kael’s description of Steenburgen’s Amy as “a stoned cupcake.”
*. The design of the machine itself was apparently inspired by the Nautilus in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954). Not George Pal’s The Time Machine, which one would have thought the obvious source to go to. More curiously, Meyer only mentions Pal’s movie once on the commentary track, in the final five minutes, despite the fact that there are clear nods to it throughout. The shot up through the skylight, for example (which is odd given that we’re in the basement), is a direct reference to the earlier movie, and was something also used in the 2002 Time Machine. (McDowell, by the way, mentions on the same commentary track that he’s never seen Pal’s movie.)
*. One reference that wasn’t intended was the scene set in Muir Woods. Apparently Meyer wasn’t thinking of Vertigo. And on the commentary he doesn’t mention La Jetée (1962) either, another famous time-travel romance that involves a trip to the woods and which references the same scene.
*. The special effects are, as Meyer admits, poor. Very poor, even for the time. But Meyer adds that he doesn’t think many people care, which I also think is right. This is more of a romantic comedy (the thriller part is really dialed down), and the SF angle is only, in Meyer’s view, a MacGuffin. The time machine is just the plot device that McDowell and Warner are after, but which the audience doesn’t care about
*. It’s not a great but a very good little movie (Meyer: “a good story, well enough told”), and one whose oddities and quirkiness have allowed it to stand time’s buffetings. Nothing about it really jumps out at you, but that’s its style. It works by restraint. I love how the journey Herbert takes Amy on to prove he’s telling the truth about time travel is so anticlimactically brief. If you blink you miss it. Or Warner’s aforementioned look of weariness as he gets sent off to infinity. No howls of rage or screams of pain. So often it’s the quiet moments in movies that last.
What, you mean you don’t have personal recollections of HG Wells? Well done for pointing out the casual carelessness of a well-respected critic here. Maybe this isn’t a great movie, but it’s a small success I’ll not tire of; thanks for reviewing!
Yes this is a movie that does seem to have been largely forgotten today but it’s really very good and has stayed fresh.