Is ‘Somewhere in Time’ the Greatest Romantic Time Travel Movie Ever Made?

Adam
Movies
Movies

Going back in time, specifically 36 years ago to the year 1980, a compelling time travel movie appeared on my TV and changed my life forever. It was the first time I ever shed a tear as a child while watching a movie. The second was when Spock died at the end of the Wrath of Khan in 1982 which was infinitely more embarrassing because it was at my friend’s birthday party and his dad totally called me out over it.

Somewhere in Time was a movie based on a screenplay by Richard Matheson who also wrote the source book, Bid Time Return. Not many people know Matheson by name, but they probably know his stories. Matheson was responsible for such popular books as I Am Legend, The Shrinking Man, A Stir of Echoes, Hell House and What Dreams May Come. That’s quite a body of work for any single writer.

Bid Time Return
A novel approach to time travel

A Writer’s Writer

Matheson is at heart a humanist. He uses genre driven plots to expose our ordinary, everyday humanity.

I Am Legend is about the crushing loneliness of being the last man alive in a world full of vampires. The Shrinking Man (movie title The Incredible Shrinking Man) is a treatise on physical degeneration and what it would feel like if your pet was the size of a house and wanted to eat you. A Stir of Echoes takes the classic ghost story but unfolds it within a detective mystery, helping solve the murder of a restless spirit.

Matheson also wrote a considerable number of teleplays for The Twilight Zone including one of the most memorable episodes, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. This fan favorite episode starred a young, handsome Canadian actor called William Shatner. You might know him better as Captain James Tiberius Kirk.

William Shatner in the Twilight Zone
Oh My!

Writing Bid Time Return

In his novel, Bid Time Return (1975), Matheson uses time travel as a way to explore contemporary ideas of infatuation, love and loss. It’s an interesting Western belief that when we fall “in love” with another person it can feel inevitable and somehow preordained, as if it could never have happened any other way. Bid Time Return takes this idea as its main conceit. In 1976, it won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel.

According to legend, Matheson was traveling with his family on vacation to Piper’s Opera House in Nevada. Matheson found himself staring at a portrait of a famous American actress named Maude Adams who had once resided at the hotel. The actress had made a career playing Peter Pan in the early 1900s but had died in 1953 at the age of 80. Matheson was quite taken with the photograph.

Matheson’s instant connection with Adams through her photograph, even though they’d never met in real life, intrigued him. He used this idea to help him sketch out the plot of his time travel novel, Bid Time Return. Matheson opined, “Creatively I fell in love with her. What if some guy did the same thing and could go back in time?”

Much like his main character, Richard Collier, Matheson began to research the life of Maude Adams. He was surprised to find out that she had lived a very lonely life. In order to write the novel, he stayed at the Hotel del Coronado, a historic beachfront hotel built in 1888, where all of the novel’s events take place. He completely sunk himself into the role of Collier, dictating much of the story directly onto a tape recorder. For the movie, the location was moved to The Grand Hotel, a resort hotel on Mackinac Island, Michigan and takes place a couple of decades later than the events in the book. The year in the movie is 1912.

Hotel del Coronado

In the novel, Richard Collier has a brain tumor and is facing his own certain extinction. On the flip of a coin, he decides to spend his last days at the Hotel del Coronado where he finds the photograph of Elise. In the movie, somewhat differently, an old lady approaches Collier and tells him, “Come back to me”. She hands him a pocket watch. 8 years later, while staying at the Grand Hotel, trying to overcome writer’s block, he finds Elise’s photograph but realizes she is actually the same old lady who asked him to come back to her.

Collier develops an unhealthy obsession with Elise’s photographic likeness. In both the novel and movie, Collier begins to research Elise’s life and learns about an overbearing manager as well as a mysterious lover with whom she had a brief affair in her younger life. Collier becomes convinced he must travel back in time to be with Elise in order to become her “mysterious lover”.

Using a process of self-hypnosis, surrounding himself with artifacts from the past and donning an old suit, Collier is somehow able to transport himself back to the 1890s (book) / 1912 (movie) time period in which Elise is living and find her.

When they finally meet, Elise asks Collier, “Is it you?”

It unfolds that Elise has been expecting Collier because no less than two different psychics have told her she would meet a mysterious man at that exact time and that exact place. The question arises, is this actually destiny? Were they always destined to meet?

Somewhere in Time on a beach
Somewhere in Time on a beach somewhere in time

The movie enjoys more power than it probably deserves, honestly, largely loaned it by a superb score written and conducted by John Barry. Barry had essentially made a career of composing music for the James Bond franchise. His scores are big, gorgeous roiling themes which tug at the heart strings. Regardless, the music plays a huge part why the movie works so well.

Spoiler: Richard Collier and Elise become lovers and it seems like both the characters have finally found their soul mate, even though they were originally separated across time. It’s at this point, I do have to wonder what Matheson’s wife thought about her writer/husband’s obsession with the actress Maude Adams in real life.

The most poignant moment in the movie occurs while Collier is watching Elise pose for a publicity photograph. Patiently waiting for the photographer to take her picture, Elise notices Richard staring at her and lovingly smiles back at him with one of the most disarming smiles ever put on celluloid. As she smiles, the photographer takes her picture.

It’s this smile, this moment, that is captured in time. This is the photograph that initiated Collier’s infatuation 63 years hence. It’s a beautiful romantic time paradox. Imagine you went to see the painting of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, only to realize her famous, enigmatic smile was actually beaming just for you.

Elise portrait

As the story progresses, Collier has a confrontation with Elise’s manager who believes the young man has come to steal his actress away from him. Various events occur including a kidnapping, but everything is eventually resolved and Collier and Elise find they cannot be separated, no matter what obstacles are thrown in their way. Tres romantic!

The couple finally end up in bed together. Consummation through time Achievement! During a loving post-coital conversation, Collier is trying on his vintage suit which Elise points out is no longer fashionable but finds a present-day (then 1970s) coin still in his pants pocket. His brain cannot handle the sudden reality of finding a coin from the future and he is whisked back to the present. It’s a gut-wrenching moment.

Poor Richard Collier immediately tries to get back to the past so he can be with Elise. He repeats everything he did before to travel back in time, but nothing works. This is where the original title for the novel becomes relevant: Bid Time Return. Broken-hearted, Collier dies in the present. At the end of the movie, post-death, he’s finally reunited with Elise. The scene is silly and reminiscent of the scene in Titanic where Rose and Jack reunite at the end, but it’s romantic and I’m a big sap when it comes to scenes like this. Let it go.

Portrait sitting
I wish I could quit you, Elise

After his death, a doctor claims that Collier’s time traveling was all in his own mind (classic Twilight Zone) but his brother believes everything Collier wrote in his journal about his time travel experience and publishes it for the world to decide.

Finally,

Somewhere in Time only scores 5.7/10 on Rotten Tomatoes with generally unfavorable reviews, still, if you have a heart and love time travel love stories, you might really like this movie. Christopher Reeve (1980 Superman) and Jane Seymour have some genuine chemistry on screen and Matheson’s story packs a serious tear jerking wallop.

Adam
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