This is one of those movies that, growing up, everyone had seen and everyone had liked, and you'd always be safe in renting because it was a guaranteed good time. I guess for later-born kids it would be something like The Goonies or whatever. Anyway, so this went to the top of my list after watching the recent version of The Time Machine, and once it arrived I was surprised and delighted to discover that it's from 1979, the zenith of the disco era, which could only add to the general fun. During the credits we learn that the overblown, inappropriate score is by Nickolas Rozsa, and that this is written and directed by Nicolas Meyer, who would later continue to display his effortless ability to craft seamless and fun genre movies with The Wrath of Khan.
So we open with a killer's-eye view of a drunken prostitute emerging from a tavern in 1893 London. She is soon drawn into an alley, where the killer plays a little music box tune from a pocket watch--this will become his consistent prelude to murder--and he kills her. There's a nice little detail as we later see a trickle of blood running out of the alley into the street. We then join Malcolm McDowell as HG Wells, showing his friends his new invention, the time machine. he drops some crucial exposition, such that there's one red key that will return the machine to its point of origin, and another that will send the occupant though time without the machine. Keep those in mind, kids! Wells' friend John comes by, and we have a little character-setting that they are rivals, and John believes that human nature is brutal and humans "hunt and are hunted," then--the police arrive! Turns out that John is Jack the Ripper! But--he's gone! And so is the time machine!
Well the time machine comes back in a second, because Wells has the red key, and he gathers up money and jewelry and follows after John. He lands in San Francisco at a museum, in part of an exhibit on himself. Now follows a bit of the time-traveler-interacts-with-the-present-day amusement that's always fun (in fact it never occurred to me that Meyer's involvement with Leonard Nimoy on Khan might have had something to do with the same time-traveler amusement being replayed in Star Trek IV). The first thing he sees upon leaving the museum is a group of Hare Krishnas, then has to deal with cars and women in tube tops and such unfamiliar sights.
He goes to various banks to change money, at the same time looking for John, who must also have needed to change money. At one he meets Mary Steenbergen as Amy, who quite forwarded offers to show him around the city. She also points him to John, who was in fact there. Wells finds him in a hotel, and John turns on the television and shows HG all the violence in the modern world, saying that in terms of killing "90 years ago I was a freak... today I'm an amateur." They have a big chase, at the end of which John is hit by a car and reported dead. Case closed!
So HG goes out on a date with Amy (who can just walk away from her job in the middle of the day and not come back), and they go to a revolving restaurant! That must have been a continuity nightmare. You'll also note that at a certain point they pass a movie marquee showing the non-existent Exorcist IV. Some dig that in the future sequels have spun out of control? It's hard to know what it's trying to say, exactly. By this time one has noticed that Steenburgen is playing Amy as a sort of woozy simpleton, like a Marylin Monroe personality. Anyway, after their nice afternoon, they hear that a prostitute has been murdered, i.e. that John is still alive.
SPOILERS > > >
So John comes to see Amy for more money, and realizes she knows. He now knows HER. HG tells her the truth, she doesn't believe him, so they go to the museum, where Wells takes her a few days forward in time. She sees a newspaper and believes him--but also sees the report on her own death! By now you're thinking "Why doesn't Wells go back before John came and just nab him as he comes out?" but, um, please just disregard those thoughts. Anyway--DISCO SCENE! Yes, it's 1979, so we couldn't possibly omit the disco scene, although not much happens there. HG and Amy try to save John's next victim, but fail. Next on the chopping block is Amy!
So on their way out the night before, Amy was like "Let's just get a gun," and HG refused, saying he won't stoop to that level, which caused her to say "I love you," which was a nice little moment. But once Amy is next on the killin' agenda, HG goes and buys one. He is nabbed by the police on his way back, when he was supposed to be spiriting Amy away so she's not home at the appointed time of her death. She took a Valium and is sleeping. He gets interrogated all day, and she wakes up a few moments before John is coming by to kill her. She's about to grab the doorknob when it turns, and then we have a shot from BEHIND the doorknob, meaning the doorknob is in the foreground! (See above.) I found that amusing, since you know they had to make a big doorknob to attach to the camera--love it! Anyway, by the time the police get there, the place is spattered in blood and there's a severed hand laying on the floor! Who knew you could have severed hands laying around in PG movies back in 1979!
So Amy has been sliced to ribbons and scattered chunks of whitish gristle. Wells walks around all dejected. Then who should show up but John--and Amy! Because, you see, we had one quick scene where Amy invited her friend Carol from work over for dinner, and I guess that was Carol's severed hand we saw. Sorry, Carol! SOMEONE accepted the wrong dinner invitation! She was expecting seven-layer salad. What she got... was MURDER. So HG promises to throw the red key to John in exchange for Amy, on John's word as a gentleman, and after he throws the key, John says "I should have thought by now you'd have noticed that I'm not a gentleman." Which works in that moment, because you are sitting at home thinking that HG is in fact a little stupid for throwing the key. But it works for his character as portrayed. Anyway, HG is forced to drive Amy's car, which he is barely able to do.
They make it to the museum, and at a certain point Wells is reduced to simply going down on his knees to beg John not to take Amy. I mention this to point out that Wells remains ineffectual--that is, in character--for the duration of the film, and doesn't suddenly become a kickboxer or swashbuckling ass-kicker at the end, as he probably would today. After the John situation is resolved, Wells has to go, and at the last minute Amy decides to go with him, back to the past. Then we have a title that The real Wells married this Amy so-and-so, and it's a nice twist that the movie asks us to imagine its this woman from the future.
< < < SPOILERS END
Solid popcorn entertainment that you don't have to be embarrassed to like. It's a fun twist that sets the whole thing in motion, is has a tiny sheen of social comment, the twists and complications generally make sense, and it's just solid in every regard. As I said, one of the things I appreciate is that Wells is a dork, and stays a dork through the entire film. The movie sets this up a the reason Amy likes him, because he's different and more traditional, and it works, culminating in the moment when he says he won't use guns and she replies that she loves him. He also remains largely inept for the whole movie, and the movie uses that to generate suspense, like when we have a car chase that gains suspense from the fact that Wells can't drive, and when he is simply reduced to begging at the end. Nowadays we would be unlikely to have a hero that remained fairly incapable, and he would suddenly reveal his martial arts skills. Not so here, and it makes you respect the movie all the more. It plays fair.
So there you go, a solid, well-made, fun movie, the kind we don't get too much of lately. It won't do much more than entertain, but it does that well and won't let you down.
Sure, it's a well-made popcorn movie.