In 1979, the Bay Area and the nation were recovering from the dawn of the era of the serial killer. While they had always existed, it was in the Seventies that the concept of serial murders as a distinct psychological crime entered the public consciousness. Just ten years earlier the Tate-La Bianca spree killings by the Manson Family had cut deep into the national psyche, and more recently in NY both Ted Bundy and the Son of Sam had terrorized the locals. Here in San Francisco the news had been filled with stories about the Zodiac murders after a letter purported to be from the killer was received by the San Francisco Chronicle in April 1978.
Naturally, Hollywood was not far behind: Dirty Harry took on the Scorpio killer on our streets, and cops have been chasing serial killers across the screen ever since.
But the most famous serial killer of them all is Jack the Ripper. At the time he became Jack, the term “serial killer” was nearly a century away, but once the concept came about he practically became their patron saint. His shadow hangs over the late nineteenth century, helping give lie to the romantic notion of the past as a more innocent time.
H.G. Wells, on the other hand is, if not a patron saint, at the very least a revered founding father of science fiction. Like “serial killer” the term “science fiction” was not yet invented when he began writing it; he called his stories “scientific romances.” His shadow also looms over the next-to-last century, but in his case the shade is benign. He stands for rationalism, science and imagination. While not all his visions were Utopian, he was and is associated with a optimistic view of science as the savior of humanity and the rational minded scientist as hero.
The contrast between these two nineteenth-century men (Wells lived until 1946, but The Time Machine was published in 1895) is perfect for a story set in the confused and turbulent social landscape of late-Twentieth Century America.
In Time After Time (1979), the story starts in 1893 London where Wells has built a working time machine. His friend, a physician named John, is discovered to be Jack the Ripper and uses the device to escape into the future. Wells naturally follows.
In the movie present the Ripper feels right at home, crowing, “Ninety years ago I was a freak; today I am an amateur!” Wells, on the other hand, is disconcerted by the Twentieth Century and surprised to find it is not the Utopia he had imagined. Certainly the real Wells saw enough of the twentieth century to become disillusioned with some of his ideas of the future. The failure of the League of Nations and the actuality of the USSR hung heavy on his mind in later years.
For an added bit of reality mixing, the fictional Wells falls in love with a modern woman named Amy Robbins (played by Mary Steenburgen). Amy Robbins was the name of Well’s real-life spouse. In the movie she is a frank and liberated Seventies woman who falls for the intelligent but somewhat naïve young Wells. Both their romance and the action scenes take place across the San Francisco landscape, a great example of the difference that shooting on location makes. This is a gorgeously photogenic city and as Jack and H.G. chase each other through the Embarcadero or Amy and Wells stroll trough the Palace of Fine Arts, the difference between shooting on location and phoning it in from Vancouver has never been more obvious. They even manage to fit in the requisite car chase through the steep city hills.
Nicholas Meyer adapted the screenplay from his own eponymous novel and directed it himself. He also directed two of the best Star Trek films, Wrath of Khanand Undiscovered Country, and helped with the screenplay of The Voyage Home, another time-travel story set in San Francisco. Clearly he is a fan, if not of the SF genre in general then certainly of the Victorian scientific romance era, describing himself as fascinated by Verne and having written several neo-Holmes novels including the classic The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, which he also adapted for the screen. His other genre directing credits include the post-apocalyptic classics The Day After and On the Beach, and his upcoming projects include The Crimson Petal and White, set in 1860’s London, and a Teddy Roosevelt biopic to be directed by Scorsese.
SF/SF Issue 32, October 2006