Once a week for the past six years – a streak that could not be interrupted even by Superstorm Sandy – the New York Movie Klub has gathered its 20 or so members to share a film with each other. Cinephile City’s Mark Young is a member of the Klub, and every Monday he will share the previous week’s movie here.
Like a lot of movies of its era, 1980’s Somewhere in Time is a slow burn. Like a lot of movies of it’s era, it’s a little bit silly, in a way that would bring armchair scientists and nit-pickers out of the woodwork in the Internet age. For the first two-thirds of the movie, I was one of those nit-pickers as well, wondering how exactly this film expected to obey the flimsy rules it sets up for itself. You have to wait for this film’s superb ending to figure out exactly what it was going for all along.
Christopher Reeve plays successful Chicago playwright Richard Collier, who is blocked on his newest script and heads out into the countryside on an impulsive vacation to hunt for ideas. Through an odd chain of events better seen than explained in writing, he becomes obsessed with turn-of-the-century actress Elise McKenna (Jane Seymour) and … I swear this is what happens … he uses self-hypnosis to travel back in time to woo her in person.
In a certain light, that could be the premise for a heartfelt romance. In a different light, it sounds like Collier is the most committed celebrity stalker in history. It’s hard not to watch Collier’s awkward attempts to find McKenna in 1912 and not be reminded of the legendary Onion headline, “Romantic Comedy Behavior Gets Real-Life Man Arrested.” This is especially true after he opens with the super-creepy line, “Do you know how long I’ve traveled to see you?”
However, as there was no Onion in 1980, the movie is played completely straight. At no point does Collier, or anyone else, suggest that his plan is anything less than a brilliant idea. At no point does anyone posit that hypnosis is not magic and does not grant godlike powers over time and space (whomever is the Neil DeGrasse Tyson of hypnotism, he must avoid Somewhere in Time, if he values his sanity). The only voice of reason comes in the form of McKenna’s manager, played by the great Christopher Plummer, and he’s obviously a villain.
Now, just about anyone can make those criticisms, but it’s worth asking: Are those criticisms really valid? The time travel in entertainments such as Back to The Future and Quantum Leap is no less nonsense than what we see here, but that didn’t stop those from being heartfelt and occasionally poignant. Collier and McKenna’s romance is lightning-fast in a way that no real-life love ever is, but no less so than the romance Romeo and Juliet have. In other words, love stories are silly, can be silly, and have been silly for a long time, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have any romantic power.
Much of the power comes from Reeve’s great acting. He was always underrated as an actor — as Brandon Routh will tell you, no one ever gets proper credit for playing Superman well — and it’s interesting how this role plays in some ways that are the same as the comic book hero, and some ways that are different. It’s that innocent Clark Kent quality which allows Richard to woo Elise in a situation where just about any woman would say, “leave me alone, you madman.” However, Reeve also brings an edge of cockiness to Collier that Superman would never have: he misjudges his period wardrobe, misunderstands the motives of the Plummer character, walks about a high-society hotel sixty years before his time as though he owns the joint, and generally blunders about like time travel is the easiest thing in the universe. Eventually, he learns otherwise, and Reeve’s best work comes afterward, in the toughest part of the film.
The thing that sticks with me about Somewhere in Time, days afterward, is how affecting it is considering that it’s not much movie. It seems like Richard does his research and preparation in a single day, woos Elise in a single day, and then we’re at the finale. There’s no will-they-won’t-they with Elise; he needs just one afternoon and a horse-drawn carriage to move past her defenses. It seems like Plummer is going to be a much bigger thing in the story — no spoilers here, but there are hints toward a huge backstory with him — and then he abruptly walks out of the movie for good. Compared to the jam-packed plot of Titanic, another movie about a person traveling back in time to find a lover, Somewhere in Time feels like a story told over a campfire.
What that means is, this plot should not be taken at face value. It’s all a fairy tale, or more accurately a parable: a cautionary story about people who muck about with the universe at their own peril. In order to make that work, you need a love that’s as big and saccharine as they come, so giant and so sweet that the laws of nature themselves are no impediment to the lovers. Somewhere in Time is a bit clumsy in spots, but in the end it reaches that giant, sweet place. That’s probably why it has a reputation as one of the great tear-jerkers of its era.
Mark Young is the editor of Cinephile City.