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Ninety years ago I was a freak. Today I'm an amateur.
In 1893, aspiring writer and inventor H. G. Wells (McDowell) invites some friends over to dinner, where he shows them one of his latest inventions -- a device he claims can travel through time. Despite the general mockery he receives, one of them -- a surgeon called John Leslie Stevenson (Warner) -- takes particular interest in his claims, and not for no reason; moments after, the police intrude into Wells' home, claiming to have traced none other than Jack the Ripper to the premises. When a search reveals that Stevenson has disappeared, Wells realises that not only is Stevenson the Ripper, but that he has used Wells' time machine to escape into the future and evade justice.
Appalled at the thought of having unleashed a monster onto the social utopia he believes the future will be, he decides to follow Stevenson into the future and bring him back to face justice. Arriving in San Francisco in 1979, Wells finds that the future is not everything he thought or hoped, befriends an attractive, feminist bank clerk named Amy Robbins (Steenburgen) and discovers that Stevenson is up to his old tricks -- and that Amy may be his next victim...
- Beethoven Was an Alien Spy: If not actually the first story to be built on the idea of "hey, what if H. G. Wells really did have a time machine?", then certainly one of the Trope Codifiers.
- Born in the Wrong Century: Stevenson. He finds out that being Jack the Ripper in the Twentieth Century makes him an amateur when it comes to killing, and feels right at home starting up his killing spree again.
- Chekhov's Gun: The "send the passenger to infinity" key
- Fish Out of Temporal Water: Wells finds that the future isn't the utopia he'd thought.
- Also, he has this exchange with Amy:
Wells: Much superior to that Scottish place where I breakfasted.
(Amy looks at him in confusion)
- Good Is Dumb: Wells, during the Hostage for Macguffin scene.
- Good Is Old-Fashioned: Stevenson considers Wells to be this.
- Hey, It's That Guy!: A very young Corey Feldman as a kid in the museum where the time machine ends up.
- Sark/Dillinger is Jack the Ripper!
- Historical In-Joke: Wells brings Amy back with him to the 19th Century at the end of the film; as the epigraph afterward explains, H. G. Wells did in fact end up marrying a proto-feminist named Amy Robbins.
- Hostage for Macguffin: Giving his word as a gentleman, Stevenson offers to trade Amy for the anti-return key Wells holds. He naturally fails to deliver the hostage, and chides Wells for not realizing that he is no gentleman.
- I'm Mr. Future Pop Culture Reference: Inverted and subverted; to blend in, Wells, adopts the name of a period fictional character he's sure will be forgotten ninety years later. Unfortunately, this fictional character happens to be Sherlock Holmes. (For Bonus Points, one of the cops to whom he introduces himself this way is named Inspector Gregson.)
- Also, despite still being famous in the future, being known by his initials allows him to blend in quite nicely with his real name Herbert Wells.
- Jack the Ripper: Well, yeah.
- Oh Crap: Stevenson during the climax when he realizes Wells is about to pull the "send the passenger to infinity" key out of the time machine.
- Playing Against Type: Malcolm McDowell, who thanks to various prior roles generally gets cast as a bit of a psycho nutcase or otherwise amoral type, plays the rather sweet, slightly naive Wells -- in a movie with Jack the Ripper.
- Shown Their Work: Inverted and expressed simultaneously: McDowell studied actual recordings of H. G. Wells speaking -- but because the real Wells' voice was high-pitched and Cockney-accented, he chose not to imitate it.
- Taking the Heat: When the cops refuse to listen to Wells's Jack-the-Ripper story, he gets so desperate that he confesses to the killings in an attempt to get them to check Amy's apartment and make sure she's safe.
- Terminator Twosome
- Villains Blend in Better: Provides the above quote -- H. G. Wells struggles to fit in (although to be fair to him, in practical terms he adapts a lot better than most; it's mainly culture shock over the idea that the future isn't everything he'd built it up to be), while Jack the Ripper of all people acclimatises comfortably.