Actor David Warner has died.
Warner was a very prolific actor; bring up his filmography and you’ll be scrolling for quite a while. While he was usually not a lead, he was more than a “character actor”. Warner brought gravity, precision, and seriousness to every role he undertook. He brought an air of dignity to the table whether he played a villain or an ally or something in between. Warner appeared in genre films a lot; the first thing I ever saw him in was 1982’s TRON in which he had the dual role of the oily businessman Ed Dillinger in the ‘real’ world and the sadistic henchman program Sark in the ‘computer’ world. From then on I would run into Warner pretty frequently, as he was the kind of actor who was always working.
Warner showed up on Star Trek several times, first as a human in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, and then as the doomed Klingon Chancellor Gorkon in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. He would then be a Cardassian in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Chain of Command”, a particularly memorable turn in which his character, Gul Madred, tortures a captive Captain Picard, taunting him to break and admit that there are five spotlights shining down on him when in reality there are only four.
Oddly, despite being such a prevalent English actor, Warner never appeared in any Star Wars property, except for some voice work in a game that came out in 2000. I consider that a missed opportunity for Star Wars.
David Warner was like Christopher Lee in his ability to elevate whatever material he was in. His characters, whether villainous or virtuous, always had an air of dignity and consideration about them, and there was always a careful precision in his acting. He was Billy Zane’s security-henchman guy in Titanic, a really nasty character named Lovejoy; at the end of the scene where Jack saves Rose from her suicide attempt and then helps her cover up that she attempted suicide at all, Warner fixes Leonardo DiCaprio with a pleasant expression as he says “It’s curious how she slipped and fell so suddenly, and yet you had time to remove your jacket and your shoes.” And the pleasantness leaves his eyes entirely, even as he gives DiCaprio a tight, controlled smile. You can see Lovejoy’s lethal nature in that tiny moment that Warner pulls off. There’s no question this guy is going to be bad news before the end.
The first time I saw David Warner in anything was a thriller called Time After Time, in which Warner played an 1890s London physician who turns out to be none other than Jack the Ripper. He commits one more murder but now the police are onto him…when he learns that his good friend, author and naive utopian H.G. Wells, has created a time machine. I wrote about this movie several years ago when I was still writing for The Geekiverse, and I discovered earlier that that site has been taken down (The Geekiverse‘s owner has been retooling, refocusing, and ultimately rebranding the site, which is absolutely fine!). Luckily, via the Wayback Machine, I was able to grab the text of what I wrote back then. I offer it below as tribute to David Warner, a wonderful actor who will be missed but whose body of work will endure.
What if H.G. Wells wrote The Time Machine out of direct experience with time travel? What if Wells actually built a time machine and used it to visit San Francisco in 1979? What if Wells came to 1979 chasing Jack the Ripper, who had also used Wells’s machine to flee certain capture in 1893? That’s the hook of the 1979 movie Time After Time, one of my favorite time travel stories of all…well, you know.
Time travel is one of speculative fiction’s warhorse tropes, and I very much doubt you can find a genre fan whose personal list of favorite stories doesn’t include at least one time travel tale, be it Back to the Future or Star Trek entries like “The City on the Edge of Forever” or ST IV: The Voyage Home or that weepiest of weepers, Somewhere in Time.
Time After Time opens in 1893, on a steamy gaslit street in London where we witness as Jack the Ripper (“My name is John, but my friends call me Jack….”) murders a prostitute.
Then we meet our hero, H.G. Wells (played by Malcolm McDowell), who is hosting a dinner party at which he unveils to his friends (including a physician named John Leslie Stevenson, played by David Warner) the time machine that he has built. Wells is planning to travel forward in time so he can witness what he assumes will be humanity’s Utopia, believing as he does that the dawn of the Socialist utopia is at hand.
The dinner party is cut short by a visit from Scotland Yard. It seems that “the Ripper has struck again,” after several years of inactivity, and he has done so quite nearby. Searching Wells’s home, the detectives find Dr. Stevenson’s medical bag containing the knife and the bloody gloves, revealing Wells’ own friend to be England’s most notorious murderer. Stevenson is not in the house, though, and Wells realizes that there is only one way Stevenson can have escaped: he has fled in the time machine to 1979. “I’ve turned that bloody maniac loose upon Utopia!” Wells says as he follows Stevenson into the future, where he discovers many things, including lunch at McDonald’s, that women have achieved a degree of professional mobility, and that the future is far from the Utopia he has envisioned.
When Wells confronts Stevenson in his hotel room, Stevenson shows Wells a television set and all the violent content available on it. Stevenson points out, to Wells’s horror, that their future is closer to his Utopia than Wells’s. “Ninety years ago I was a freak,” Stevenson says. “Today I’m an amateur…We don’t belong here? On the contrary, Herbert. I belong here, completely and utterly. I’m home.”
Luckily for the film, Time After Time doesn’t dwell much on this bit of social commentary, preferring to keeps its story moving, but it does make clear the viewpoint that violence is an eternal part of the human condition. Late in the film Wells says: “Every age is the same. It’s only love that makes any of them bearable.”
Love: that’s the other main part of Time After Time, because H.G. Wells also finds love while he is searching for the Ripper. He needs money and goes to convert some of his 1893 currency, where he meets banker Amy Robbins (Mary Steenburgen). They begin a romance in which Robbins is entranced by Wells’s quaint clothes and oddly out-of-touch prudishness. Wells keeps his secret as long as he can, but eventually he realizes that he has to come clean with her, and when he does he proves that he is telling the truth about having come from the past by using the time machine to take her four days into the future. This works…except that the newspaper they find, proving that they have indeed gone into the future again, has a headline story about the new Ripper’s latest murder: Amy herself. Wells must now stop Jack the Ripper entirely, and stop him from murdering the woman he loves.
Time After Time is a grand, old-fashioned entertainment, right from the very start when the film opens with the great old Warner Brothers fanfare that once opened films such as Casablanca. Director Nicholas Meyer, in his first feature film, keeps the story moving briskly along and lets his actors do the work. The “fish out of water” stuff, like Wells ordering at McDonalds and identifying himself to police as “Sherlock Holmes” (clearly never expecting a popular fictional character from his own day to endure for all time), works very well, and Meyer does not lean on that stuff too heavily at all, thus keeping the film from spinning off into pure comedy.
Best of all are the performances. McDowell depicts Wells’s wisdom and naivete, and it’s hardly a revelation that David Warner plays a very fine villain in his Jack the Ripper. Steenburgen’s Amy Robbins is smart and competent, clearly seeing through Wells but also being willing to go along with his weirdness for a while…until things get too weird, of course. By limiting the time travel to the future, Time After Time involves all the paradoxical time travel stuff like changing history and keeping parents from meeting and the like. Instead the film focuses on how the future invariably amazes and disappoints at the same time. The movie also holds up quite well, not being terribly dated at all (the period McDonald’s uniforms are a hoot, though).
Time After Time looks great, even after all these years. The machine itself is a great bit of Victorian steampunk, looking vaguely fishlike and studded with gems. Miklos Rozsa, one of the greatest composers of film music ever, turns in one of his last scores. Nicholas Meyer would make an even bigger mark in genre film three years later, with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and both McDowell and Warner would show up in Trek movies themselves (though not together). Looking for a great time travel story? Try Time After Time!