This 36-year-old movie stars Malcolm McDowell, David Warner, and Mary Steenburgen, all looking incredibly young, and very attractive. The script is quite good and is well-realized, which is not so surprising as it might be, because Nicholas Meyer (writer of three Sherlock Holmes novels and director of two Star Trek movies: numbers 2 and 6) both wrote and directed the film. McDowell plays H.G. Wells, who is presented as a tinkerer as well as writer, a man capable of bringing ideas from paper to reality. His dream has been a time machine because he is convinced the world is on the brink of profound social change: eliminating war, making comfortable lives for even those who do the dirtiest and least rewarding jobs, and achieving economic advantages for everyone, including women.
The movie begins in 1893 London, with a Jack the Ripper murder which is shown from Jack’s point-of-view. Cut to an all-male gathering in Wells’s home and the late arrival of a friend, John L. Stevenson, a doctor, played by David Warner. H.G. and John play chess, and as usual John wins. One of the party comments that John always wins, and John says, “I know how he thinks, that’s all.” H.G. replies confidently, “One day I shall win”, and John says, “When you learn how I think.” Aside from these lines the conversation has been about Wells’s social ideas and the time machine he has been working on, so now H.G. takes the party downstairs into his basement workshop to show them the machine, which he is almost ready to test. He explains how it works and its safeguards, which thanks to Meyer, turn out to make more sense than in other pictures which depend on scientific advances. Then the housekeeper hurries downstairs to tell Wells that there are policemen at the door. All troop upstairs and learn that the murder we saw happened fairly close-by and that the Ripper was followed to this very address. Dr. Stevenson is present one moment, absent the next, and when this is remarked upon, the police leave in pursuit. Only after everyone has gone does Wells realize that the time machine is missing. The built-in homing device works (thanks to one of the two keys still being in Wells’s pocket), and Wells gives chase, landing in 1979 San Francisco, the year of the film’s release.
How he becomes a detective in a world 86 years older than his own, how he meets a bank executive in the foreign currency exchange department (played by Mary Steenburgen) and tries to protect her from Stevenson, and how he is sadly disillusioned by the modern world, all make for a very satisfying film. A quibble: Wells introduces himself to the San Francisco police as Sherlock Holmes, apparently thinking that a character from The Strand magazine will have been long forgotten after 86 years, but his reasons should have been stated somehow, especially since this choice leads to total disbelief on the part of the police, which he doesn’t understand. And if you’re wondering why the time machine should leave London and land in San Francisco, it’s because that’s where the machine is in 1979, in a museum. Surprises in small roles: Corey Feldman played Boy in Museum, and Shelley Hack played the Docent.
Toward the end of this thoroughly enjoyable movie, Wells cheers himself up with this thought, “Every age is the same. It’s only love that makes any of them bearable.”