Breaking hearts and genre boundaries: The romantic audacity of “Somewhere In Time.”

somewhere in time

Not long ago I re-watched an old movie I remember very fondly from my youth, Jeannot Swarc’s romantic fantasy Somewhere In Time. I remember watching it one day in high school when I was home sick–that would have been in the late 1980s–but I’m sure I first saw it earlier than that. Unlike many films you love as a child and then see again in adulthoodSomewhere In Time holds up remarkably well. In fact it’s an excellent film that’s held its magic for 35 years. It’s also one that succeeds at a risky task that few mainstream works of fiction, whether written or filmed, have the guts to attempt: transcend the boundaries of genre. Somewhere In Time is neither a romance nor a science fiction film, but has one foot planted firmly in each. As such it’s an interesting subject to analyze.

The film, made in 1980, stars Christopher Reeve in his first role after winning worldwide fame and popularity as Superman. Reeve plays Richard Collier, a Chicago playwright who’s in a slump and has just broken up with his girlfriend. Seeking distraction, he drives around and decides randomly to check into the Grand Hotel, a famous 19th century landmark on Mackinac Island in Michigan. There he becomes obsessed with a photograph of Elise McKenna (Jane Seymour), an actress who gave a performance at the hotel in 1912. Collier falls in love with her and decides to project himself 68 years back in time through sheer willpower so he can be with Elise. He succeeds, but is continually thwarted by Elise’s manager, Robinson (Christopher Plummer). As Elise begins to return his affection, Collier is wrenched away from her by returning to the present–thus setting up the film’s romantic dilemma, can he again cross the years to be with her? There’s also a frame story involving a memento stopwatch and Elise as an old woman in the 1970s, but I won’t spoil that one for you, as it’s the “punchline” of the entire film.

As a movie, Somewhere In Time is put together like a Swiss watch. Its opening scene is a grabber, the exposition of Collier and his love for Elise McKenna is straightforward, and the scenes between Reeve and Seymour are tender and touching. There’s real chemistry between the actors, not just the two main leads, but between Seymour and Christopher Plummer, whose portrayal of theatrical manager William Fawcett Robinson ranks as a high point in his very long and distinguished career. There are some “gotcha!” moments involving time travel, particularly one character, the hotel’s bellhop, who appears both as an old man in the 1980 scenes and a young boy in 1912, but the movie doesn’t treat them as gimmicks, which many films involving time travel can’t resist doing. French-born director Jeannot Swarc is less an auteur than what I call a “workhorse” director (like Joseph Sargent), but he definitely knew how to handle this very tricky material that would have fallen into hopeless mush in the hands of a less experienced director.

As a story, Somewhere In Time is audacious. It was based on a 1975 novel called Bid Time Return written by Richard Matheson, who also wrote the screenplay. Matheson was known as a science fiction writer, and Bid Time Return seems “closer” to pure science fiction than does the film, which emphasizes the romantic elements of the plot. I read Bid Time Return and came away thinking that the movie was actually better. In the book Collier is dying of a brain tumor, which I think actually diminishes the impact of the story: if you’re going to die in six months anyway, what are you really risking by trying to bet the rest of your life on a long-shot at finding love through time travel? In the movie version, Collier’s commitment to Elise is demonstrated less by the fact that he travels in time to be with her than he’s willing to abandon his life and career in the present to do it. (The film also changed the location–it was the Hotel Coronado in San Diego in the book–and the target date, which in the book was 1896). The movie, thus, acts more like a traditional romance than a science fiction story. Time travel is an exotic detail, but it’s a mechanism to fulfill the characters’ human longings, rather than a driver of the story or situation for its own sake.

This touching scene from Somewhere In Time shows it all: the romance, the chemistry between Reeve and Seymour, and includes John Barry’s haunting theme music.

I think writers have less to fear from blurring or bending genre rules than many non-writer drivers of creative industries–movie producers, book editors, agents, etc.–evidently think they should. I’m not a romance writer, but romance seems a particularly prickly and forbidding arena where genre rules are especially rigid (I am told, for instance, that a love story with a sad ending can never be considered “romance” under any circumstances). Science fiction is less rigid, but if Somewhere In Time were pitched to a film studio today I could easily see a producer saying, “Well, what is it? It’s got time travel, but the script is mostly about a guy and a girl who fall in love. The kids won’t buy tickets to see that.” Perhaps something like that was said about Somewhere In Time before its production, but its survival as a cult film has attested that it has something audiences continue to respond to. Though only a modest success upon its release, the film has a significant fan base today. Nearly everyone I know who remembers the 80s thinks very fondly of it.

It’s impossible to do an article on Somewhere In Time without mentioning its musical score, which is perhaps one reason why it’s so loved. John Barry, one of the greatest-ever film composers, created a haunting, romantic theme for the picture that rings in your head months (or years) after you’ve seen it. It also melds perfectly with a melody by Rachmaninoff, “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,” which is repeated several times in the film. The film’s sound is so lush and rich that it makes it impossible not to be emotionally caught up by what’s happening on screen.  This is exactly the job that a film score should do, and Barry executes it perfectly.

This piece by Rachmaninoff is forever associated with Somewhere In Time, and one of its most memorable elements. It was written in 1934.

Thirty-five years on, Somewhere In Time is still out there breaking hearts. I had the biggest crush on Jane Seymour for years as a result of this movie, and seeing it again didn’t dim its intensity a bit. This is truly a film for the ages.

The poster for Somewhere in Time is copyright (C) 1980 by Universal Pictures, the film’s distributor. I believe my inclusion of it here constitutes fair use under copyright laws.
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2 Comments on Breaking hearts and genre boundaries: The romantic audacity of “Somewhere In Time.”

  1. Robin Ridley // April 18, 2015 at 6:28 pm // Reply

    I live in Michigan, and a few years ago, I took a vacation to Mackinac. This movie was referenced everywhere, and since the island has no cars, it is very easy to get caught up in the romance and imagine yourself in the movie itself.

  2. I love this movie, too. It has to be one of the most unashamedly romantic movies ever made. That era really pulled it off. You are so right about how in lesser hands ( or today’s ‘hands’) it could easily become mush. ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’, from more recent years, stands up beside it.

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