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I don’t understand. Nobody seems to like my suit.

Movie

Somewhere in Time
(1980)

 

While I’m reluctant to apply a generically dismissive-sounding characterisation to Somewhere in Time, it’s probably a largely fair one in terms of its appeal: chick flick. Apparently, none dare call it that, however. Jeannot Szwarc’s adaptation of Richard Matheson’s 1975 novel Bid Time Return – with a screenplay from Matheson himself; the title’s from Richard III – is likeable but ever-so slight. The apparatus of its time travel is reduced to a non-technical status that encourages the romanticism at its heart; indeed, similar ages-crossed magic is at the heart of femme-appeal Outlander too. Don’t dwell on the method, as it’s but a means to an end of the main event. The problem for me is that the main event just isn’t that transportive.

I can get fully behind some movie romances, but a few key ones, ones that have tended to elicit rapturous responses among a certain demographic, have left me visibly indifferent. Kate and Leo. Richard and Julia (x2). Somewhere in Time wasn’t a hit on its release; Jane Seymour suggested this was because Universal were putting their muscle behind The Blues Brothers, released the same week; The Blues Brothers came out in June and Somewhere in Time in October, and the latter was beaten by Oh God! Book 2 in its first week, so her thinking may be wishful. Nevertheless, its reputation has grown as a bastion of eternal love triumphing death. It’s both very sad and very romantic, and its appeal has been acutely captured via comparison with one of the biggest movie hits ever:

We contend that James Cameron stole his entire love story from Somewhere in Time. Both stories start with an old woman who has retained a piece of jewellery. There is a portrait created of the woman during the course of the story. There is a man (Christopher Plummer) with power over the woman and who tries to keep the lovers apart and is willing to use force to do so. The lovers are united briefly to consummate their love. The man dies young, the woman dies old, and they are both reunited after death as young lovers. And both take place in 1912.

So maybe Cameron has just spent his career plundering classic writers? First Harlan Ellison with The Terminator. Then Matheson with Somewhere in Time. Avatar, you can take your pick (Poul Anderson, Robert F Young, Ben Bova, Ursula Le Guin). The Titanic connection is a curious one, though. Matheson’s novel had Richard Collier (Christopher Reeve) travelling back from 1971 to 1896 to woo young theatre actress Elise McKenna (Jane Seymour); the movie shifts the dates to 1980 and 1912 respectively. Richard is seen wearing a Team Atlantic t-shirt, which is, of course, the ocean in which the Titanic (or the Olympic, obviously) was scuppered. I was also put in mind of the same year’s The Shining, in which present day events at a hotel are linked to those in the distant past, including an eerily resonant photo (in that case from 1921). 

A stumbling block for me is that the romance itself is rather perfunctory. Indeed, it blooms across a montage sequence. Perhaps this is a key to its success for those enraptured; the audience fills in the blanks. But there’s the additional problem of Reeve’s awkward, impulsive playing divesting the relationship of potency (he was a fine fit for Clark Kent/Superman, but having revisited a couple of his early performances, there’s a sense of youthful inexperience in his playing, of doing too much, that can get in the way. Miles Mathis pegged Reeves as closeted, and his spinal injury as a fix. Which, given Miles’ form, may hold partial truth in either or both cases). 

If you want a slightly cringy klutz as your romantic lead, he’s your man. Him or Crisin Glover. Despite Reeves’ size, he’d make a good fit for a nervy Norman Bates, uncomfortable in his own skin. On the other hand, Richard’s so indescribably earnest, you’re just about willing to accept Elise doesn’t see him as a weirdo stalker. Seymour’s note perfect, unsurprisingly, although the picture is told through Richard’s eyes, meaning she’s offered limited opportunities (it’s forty minutes before we meet her). Christopher Plummer is the fly in the ointment of their happiness (he’s Billy Zane, and not a cool guy). Nice also to see Teresa Wright. 

The straightforwardness of Matheson’s approach is, admittedly, refreshing; the self-hypnosis means of time travel was intended to avoid identifying the picture with the science-fiction genre, although the corollary is that SF tropes are nevertheless dissected; Richard, having been provided a watch by an older version of Elise, who whispers “Come back to me”, does nothing – understandably – until he comes across her portrait eight years later. He seeks advice from time-travel theorist Professor Finney (George Voskovec), who instructs him to tell his mind to return to the desired period; he must dissociate himself entirely from the present, such that his mind accepts the new time absolutely (it seems Matheson was inspired by the technique deployed in JB Priestley’s 1964 Man and Time). 

While it is evident that Richard is fully aware he is from 1980 when he has travelled to 1912 (for example, his ensuring the register is completed as he remembers, and that he gets the correct hotel room), and is thus surely only so disassociated, it is only an object from his present – the 1979 cent – that triggers his return. There’s a certain economy to this conception. It saves Richard stumbling across Tesla’s old papers and devising a machine from blueprints. Additional to which, it offers an in-built tragic yo-yo.

In the novel, Matheson left open the possibility that this was all Richard’s imagining; he has a brain tumour, which ultimately causes his death. Here, while one might choose the illusory interpretation, the film is clearly gauged to an objective sense. Richard discovers he cannot recreate the mood necessary for a return trip, and so dies of a broken heart (but, joy – he is reunited with Elise in the afterlife. Notably, he arrives there in his bowler).

Matheson’s story is built around a causal paradox; Richard and Ellise’s relationship is a loop, each the instigator of the other’s longing. He wouldn’t travel back to her if she hadn’t, in old aged, piqued his interest, and she wouldn’t have piqued his interest had he not travelled back and, when she was young, piqued hers. Added to which, there’s the “ontological paradox” of the pocket watch with no source of origin (Captain Kirk gives us one of these in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, when he pawns his antique spectacles in 1987. Spock protests they were a gift from Dr McCoy: “And they will be again. That’s the beauty of it”).

 There are a few curiosities here, perhaps borne from changes to the novel’s events. William Fawcett Robinson (Plummer) appears to have had premonitions of Elise’s success and her meeting with Richard, although when you hear her give details, it sounds like little more than (a) belief he can make her a star, and (b) fear she will leave him (“William told me you were coming he told me one day I’d meet a man who’d change my life”). Given the vagueness of the latter and her “Is it you? Is it?”, one is given to speculate whether, every time she meets a man, she’s wondering the same thing (and that she’s so credulous of William, she takes his word as gospel). 

Matheson professed it “follows my script very closely, and I was very happy with it”. Szwarc does a reasonable job – he has said it’s his favourite of his films – which is a compliment, given he’s responsible for Supergirl and Santa Claus: The Movie (I’ve generally been less than convinced, and I was surprised to see his eventual high profile on TV, including work on the likes of Fringe). Time Out’s David Pirie complained of “truly atrocious staging, plus Christopher Reeve looking awkwardly man-of-steelish as the hero”. Pirie also suggested – something others have too – that there was a ’40s quality to the movie, that it was the kind of fare David O Selznick would have lavished with an opulent budget, and there’s something to this. John Barry makes memorable use of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini; indeed, it does much of the emotional heavy lifting. Had Universal its own TV+, I could see Somewhere in Time becoming a mini- or ongoing series; given its enduring cult status, it  can only be a matter of time before it’s plundered.

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