The film concerns British author H. G. Wells and his fictional use of a time machine to pursue Jack the Ripper into the 20th century.
In 1893 London, popular writer Herbert George Wells displays a time machine to his skeptical dinner guests. After he explains how it works (including a "non-return key" that keeps the machine at the traveler's destination and a "vaporizing equalizer" that keeps the traveler and machine on equal terms), police constables arrive at the house searching for Jack the Ripper. A bag with blood-stained gloves belonging to one of Herbert's friends, a surgeon named John Leslie Stevenson, leads them to conclude that Stevenson might be the infamous killer. Wells races to his laboratory, but the time machine is gone.
Stevenson has escaped to the future, but because he does not have the "non-return" key, the machine automatically returns to 1893. Herbert uses it to pursue Stevenson to November 5, 1979, where the machine has ended up on display at a museum in San Francisco. He is deeply shocked by the future, having expected it to be an enlightened socialist utopia, only to find chaos in the form of airplanes, automobiles and a worldwide history of war, crime and bloodshed.
Reasoning that Stevenson would need to exchange his British money, Herbert asks about him at various banks. At the Chartered Bank of London, he meets liberated employee Amy Robbins, who says she had directed Stevenson to the Hyatt Regency hotel.
Confronted by his one-time friend Herbert, Stevenson confesses that he finds modern society to be pleasingly violent, stating: "Ninety years ago, I was a freak. Now... I'm an amateur." Herbert demands he return to 1893 to face justice, but Stevenson instead attempts to wrest the time machine's return key from him. Their struggle is interrupted and Stevenson flees, getting hit by a car during the frantic chase. Herbert follows him to the San Francisco General Hospital emergency room and mistakenly gets the impression that Stevenson has died from his injuries.
Herbert meets up with Amy Robbins again and she initiates a romance. Stevenson returns to the bank to exchange more money. Suspecting that it was Amy who had led Herbert to him, he finds out where she lives. Herbert, hoping to convince her of the truth, takes a highly skeptical Amy three days into the future. Once there, she is aghast to see a newspaper headline revealing her own murder as the Ripper's fifth victim.
Herbert persuades her that they must go back – it is their duty to attempt to prevent the fourth victim's murder, then prevent Amy's. However, they are delayed upon their return to the present and can do no more than phone the police. Stevenson kills again, and Herbert is arrested because of his knowledge of the killing. Amy is left alone, totally defenseless, and at the mercy of the "San Francisco Ripper."
While Herbert unsuccessfully tries to convince the police of Amy's peril, she attempts to hide from Stevenson. When the police finally do investigate her apartment, they find the dismembered body of a woman. The police release a broken-hearted Wells. However, he is contacted by Stevenson, who has actually killed Amy's coworker and taken Amy hostage in order to extort the time machine key from Wells.
Stevenson flees with the key – and Amy as insurance – to attempt a permanent escape in the time machine. While Herbert bargains for Amy's life, she is able to escape. As Stevenson starts up the time machine, Herbert removes the "vaporizing equalizer" from it. As Herbert had explained earlier, this causes the machine to remain in place while its passenger is sent travelling endlessly through time, with no way to stop; in effect he is destroyed.
Herbert proclaims that the time has come to return to his own time, in order to destroy a machine that is he now knows is too dangerous for primitive mankind. Amy pleads with him to take her along. As they depart to the past, she says that she is changing her name to Susan B. Anthony.Malcolm McDowell as Herbert George Wells
David Warner as John Leslie Stevenson/Jack the Ripper
Mary Steenburgen as Amy Robbins
Charles Cioffi as Police Lt. Mitchell
Kent Williams as assistant
Patti D'Arbanville as Shirley
Joseph Maher as Adams
According to Meyer from the commentary track for the DVD and Blu-ray release of the film, the author of the novel presented Meyer with 55 pages of his unpublished novel and asked Meyer to critique his work. Meyer liked the premise and immediately optioned the story so he could write a screenplay based on the material and develop the story his own way.
McDowell was attracted to the material because he was looking for something different than the sex and violence in Caligula, in which he played the title character.
While preparing to portray Wells, Malcolm McDowell obtained a copy of a 78 rpm recording of Wells speaking. McDowell was "absolutely horrified" to hear that Wells spoke in a high-pitched, squeaky voice with a pronounced Southeast London accent, which McDowell felt would have resulted in unintentional humor if he tried to mimic it for the film. McDowell abandoned any attempt to recreate Wells's authentic speaking style and preferred a more dignified speaking style.
It was one of the last films scored by veteran composer Miklós Rózsa, who received the 1979 Saturn Award for Best Music.
Time After Time was filmed throughout San Francisco, including Cow Hollow, North Beach, the Hyatt Regency hotel, California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park, the Marina District, Ghirardelli Square, Fisherman's Wharf, the Richmond District, the Golden Gate Bridge, Grace Cathedral on Nob Hill, the Embarcadero Center, Chinatown, the Marina Green, the Palace of Fine Arts, Potrero Hill, and the Civic Center.
Time After Time received a positive response from critics. The film holds an 86% positive "Fresh" rating on the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes with the consensus, "With the three principal actors clearly having fun with their roles, Time After Time becomes an amusing, light-hearted fantasy lark."
Variety described the movie as "a delightful, entertaining trifle of a film that shows both the possibilities and limitations of taking liberties with literature and history. Nicholas Meyer has deftly juxtaposed Victorian England and contemporary America in a clever story, irresistible due to the competence of its cast." Janet Maslin of The New York Times similarly lauded, "Time After Time is every bit as magical as the trick around which it revolves." She continued:
Mr. Meyer isn't a particularly skilled director; this is his first attempt, and on occasion it's very clumsy. But as a whizkid he's gone straight to the head of the class, with a movie that's as sweet as it is clever, and never so clever that it forgets to be entertaining. The satisfactions Time After Time offers are perhaps no more sophisticated than the fun one might have with an intricate set of electric trains. Still, fun of this sort isn't always easy to come by, not after one's age has climbed up into two digits. There's a lot to be said for an adult's movie with the shimmer of a child's new toy.
Nicholas Meyer won the Saturn Award for Best Writing, Mary Steenburgen won the Saturn Award for Best Actress, and Miklós Rózsa won the Saturn Award for Best Music. Saturn Award nominations went to Meyer for Best Director, Malcolm McDowell for Best Actor, David Warner for Supporting Actor, and Sal Anthony and Yvonne Kubis for Best Costumes, and the film was nominated for Best Science Fiction Film.
Nicholas Meyer won the Antenne II Award and the Grand Prize at the Avoriaz Fantastic Film Festival and he was nominated for the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Motion Picture Screenplay and the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation.
On May 12, 2016, it was announced that the ABC television network had picked up a Time After Time television series to air in the 2016–2017 television season. The series is executive produced and written by Kevin Williamson. The series was cancelled after five episodes.