Somewhere in Time (1980)
Written by Richard Matheson
Directed by Jeannot Szwarc
I approached this film with moderate expectations but found myself enjoying it quite a bit. Somewhere in Time is a melodrama dripping with maudlin sentimentality. But it’s a well crafted one, so those excesses and silly bits can easily be ignored or enjoyed. The film is based on the novel Bid Time Return, also written by Richard Matheson. Between this film and my Twilight Zone series, I have enjoyed Matheson’s work this year. I’d only previously read I Am Legend, but I think I may need to do a deeper dive into his work. Somewhere in Time feels like a Matheson episode of Twilight Zone, which is stretched out a little longer and gives us a relatively decent tragic love story.
Eight years ago, as he is celebrating his new play opening, Richard Collier (Christopher Reeve) is approached by an old woman who looks at him as if she knows the college student. She hands Richard an old pocket watch and whispers, “Come back to me” before quickly leaving. We catch up to the present day, and Richard is still haunted by this encounter. His creative juices as a playwright are drying up, and he needs to get away for a while. By chance, he drives past The Grand Hotel on the coast of Lake Michigan and decides to check-in.
While exploring a small historical museum inside about the hotel’s history, he sees the photograph of a stunningly beautiful woman. He learns she was Elise McKenna (Jane Seymour), a stage actress circa 1912 whose troupe performed at the hotel. Collier becomes obsessed and researches Elise, eventually visiting with the author who has written about the actress. During this visit, he glimpses the last photo of Elise and realizes this was the old woman who came to him all those years ago. Collier becomes convinced that somehow he was able to travel back in time and meet this woman. He manages to discover the means to do so and falls backward into the past to find out what is going on.
Watching this movie made me miss the hell out of Christopher Reeve. He didn’t always make the best film choices when he was still able to act, but he always put everything into his roles. Reeve doesn’t hold back the emotion and the intensity here, and in another actor’s hands, it might feel comedy, but his seriousness is contagious. You become invested in Richard’s quest and want to follow him back to see what happens. Everyone in the cast is good, but Reeve is the standout performance here by a long shot.
I also appreciated the more metaphysical time travel method. It reminded me a lot of 12 Monkeys, using self-hypnosis to displace the body and mind into another point in time and space. The additional process of removing all trace of the present and surrounding yourself with artifacts from the period you want to go back to is also fantastic. And in the third act, this actually pays off in helping with the tragedy between Richard and Elise. This aspect reminded me of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone episode “Walking Distance,” where a man just walks back into the time of his childhood. When it comes to building great time travel stories, you have a lot of leeway with how technical things become. For a story like Somewhere in Time, you don’t want to lean too much on over-explaining, which would take away from the characters.
I am a big fan of tragic time travel stories. I think it’s the science fiction trope with the most potential to tell heartbreaking stories—the reasons why characters time travel are often painful ones. The whole human desire to do so often centers around dissatisfaction with the present or an attempt to fix something terrible in the past. Time travel stories are often filled with irony, especially when it comes to causal loops, as seen in something like Netflix’s Dark. We have a causal loop in Somewhere in Time because of old Elise’s words. They infer that something will take Richard away, and so part of the enticement of the story is to find out what happened.
Somewhere in Time is not a perfect film. Visually it looks very flat and almost like made for tv movie. Director Szwarc is definitely not one of my favorites, having helmed Supergirl and Santa Claus the Movie later in the 1980s. It’s the strength of Matheson’s script that carries Somewhere in Time without a doubt. With a director with a more textured aesthetic, we could have gotten something brilliant, but the final product that we do have is still an engrossing picture.