Somewhere in Time (1980) | Sci-Fi Saturdays

by Jovial Jay

Somewhat, somehow, somewhere time has come today!

It’s a different type of time travel film this week as Somewhere in Time wishes it could be something else. This unconventional time travel film opens many doors for future films of the 1980s and beyond.

First Impressions

Based on the title, and the fact that Christopher Reeve’s character is looking for a book on time travel, it’s an easy guess that he travels through time. But where most time travel films to date have been action films of some type, this appears to be a complete romantic drama. Reeve appears to get messages from an old woman, who is the present day version of a woman he falls in love with in 1912. Fate and predetermination look to be sticky bedfellows in Somewhere in Time.

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

Sci-Fi Saturdays

Somewhere in Time

Somewhere in Time title card.

The Fiction of The Film

In 1972 at Millfield College, Richard Collier (Christopher Reeve) is celebrating the conclusion of his first play with his cast when an old woman (Susan French) approaches him with a gold pocket watch and says “come back to me,” before departing mysteriously. Eight years later in Chicago, Richard is a successful playwright encountering writer’s block. He decides to go for a drive and ends up at the Grand Hotel, where he plans to stay just for the night. Richard investigates the hotel’s Hall of History and discovers an old picture of Elise McKenna (Jane Seymour) and is immediately smitten by her.

Elise was an early 20th Century actress and, after some further research at the library, the same woman that gave Richard the pocket watch eight years ago. Richard gets some further information from the bellhop, Arthur (Bill Erwin), an older gentleman that has been at the hotel for the last 70 years. He then visits with Laura Roberts (Teresa Wright), Elise’s friend and biographer, asking questions about the actress. Laura indicates that a change came over Elise sometime in 1912, something that changed her personality. Richard then notices a book on time travel by a former professor of his and a music box of Elise’s that plays Richard’s favorite song.

Visiting with his professor, Gerald Finney (George Voskovec), Richard asks about the possibilities of time travel. Finney describes a moment where he believes he was able to hypnotize himself and send himself into the past. Richard tries to set up the same experiment in his room at the Grand Hotel by removing all suggestions of anything modern, but it does not take. Frustrated, he returns to the Hall of History and notices a guest book. Finding the guest book for the day in 1912 when Elise performs her play, Richard is able to look up his own name in the register. He returns to his room and tries the self-hypnosis again, and this time it works.

Somewhere in Time

The portrait of Elise McKenna that originally sparked Richard’s quest, which is shown later to exist as such because Richard was next to the cameraman.

After making his way from his room, which is now occupied by another couple, Richard finds the hotel very busy. He attempts to find Elise, but she is nowhere to be found. Finally finding her by the lake, she asks him “is it you,” as he approaches. He is taken aback by this and abruptly asked to leave by her manager, William Fawcett Robinson (Christopher Plummer). Richard tries to dance with her later but is again shooed away. Undeterred, Richard appears at Elise’s room early the next morning and convinces her to go on a walk with him later that day.

They take a carriage ride and canoe across the lake where Richard hums his favorite song, which Elise had never heard before. He asks her to explain the mysterious phrase she uttered when they met. She tells him that Robinson has told her that she will meet a man that will change her life, and she should be afraid of him. They return to her room where they share their first kiss. In a matter of 24 hours Richard has made Elise fall in love with him. At her play that evening she performs an impromptu soliloquy expressing her love for him. Perturbed by this, Robinson sends for Richard to speak with him, and has him beaten by some toughs.

Richard awakens later tied up in the horse stable. He manages to escape, but learns that it is the next morning and the actors have left for their next stop. Despondent, Richard sits outside the hotel. Suddenly Elise comes running up to him and the two embrace. They return to his room to make love and discuss their plans for the future. As Elise examines Richard’s watch he finds a 1979 penny in his waistcoat which breaks the hypnotic suggestion and sends him back into the future. Unable to return to Elise he visits the places they visited in 1912 before returning to his room and quietly passes away. In an ethereal afterlife, Richard is once again reunited with  Elise.

Is time travel possible?” – Richard Collier

Somewhere in Time

Traveling back to 1912, Richard meets with a young Arthur (the bellhop in 1980), and makes sure to be friendly towards him.

History in the Making

Somewhere in Time is the third story (and fourth film) by author Richard Matheson that Sci-Fi Saturdays has looked at. The Incredible Shrinking Man, and The Last Man on Earth and The Omega Man (which were both based on the same story) are the other two. As many already know, Matheson was a prolific sci-fi and horror writer whose work was adapted into a number of films and television shows including The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Star Trek, and the early Steven Spielberg telefilm, Duel. This film, based on his novel “Bid Time Return,” presents an entirely new take on time travel and helped usher in an era of alternate interpretations on the sci-fi genre as films in the 80s began combining science-fiction with other film styles.

Released only two months after the first time travel film of the decade, The Final Countdown, Somewhere in Time couldn’t be a more different film. It was the film that Christopher Reeve took as his follow-up to the mega-hit Superman in an attempt to prove that he was more than a man in a silly red sheet. It was also a love story that spanned space and time; which was not anything that a time travel movie had done to date. Previous films were always more of an adventure story in which the time traveler is brought to a new time (usually in the future) as a chance to explore it. Somewhere in Time continued the idea that travel to the past was a useful story tool and opened up the genre to merge with other film styles that had not been utilized in a sci-fi setting before.

Somewhere in Time

Elise’s manager William Robinson admonishes her for leading Richard on.


Creating a time travel film where the plot was about a man falling in love with a woman from the past may have been normal in sci-fi stories, but it was a completely new story element for a sci-fi film. Time travel films usually came in one of two flavors: action films, or films where a character is trying to change something in time. Time After Time, which Sci-Fi Saturdays looked at a few months ago, is the former model, with a chase through time between H.G. Wells and Jack the Ripper, while last week’s The Final Countdown is more of the latter, where the crew of the U.S.S. Nimitz attempts to change the outcome of World War II. Time After Time also featured a love interest for the protagonist, but that was not the main thrust of the film. Unlike preceding films about time travel, The Final Countdown was one of the first films to use time travel to the past as a plot point (which was a popular motif in TV shows like Star Trek and The Time Tunnel), but had been relatively ignored in film, with time travel films featuring travel into the future. Somewhere in Time changed the rules and created a new model to work from.

The film took its character into the past through a new mode of time travel, and joined the thoroughly sci-fi element of time travel with a romantic period love story. Somewhere in Time is a Romeo & Juliet story with time travel as the means of connecting the two characters. Star crossed lovers, separated by 80 years, come together by fate to become a couple. And Richard does not use a spaceship or a time machine to return to the past, but rather practices self-hypnosis as his means of navigating the decades into the past. It does focus on a basic philosophical tenet of time travel fiction, which is the idea of Fate versus Free Will. Does a time traveler have the ability to make changes to the timeline, or are any changes they make the ones that were always there, meaning their actions are all pre-determined? It seems clear that Fate is the principle motivator that this story is based on. Richard’s actions in the past determine Elise’s motives and reactions which in turn fuel Richard’s interests in the future, driving him to return to the past. As with The Final Countdown, actions of the time traveler in the past affect the future in a paradoxical causal loop.

Somewhere in Time is much more of a love story than a standard science-fiction film. If 2001: A Space Odyssey is a conventional sci-fi film, Somewhere in Time is a much more peripheral in its use of sci-fi elements. That’s because it’s an early hybridization of science-fiction with a new genre, heretofore unseen in the annals of sci-fi media–the romantic drama. There are very few “pure” sci-fi films. Most of the time the sci-fi elements are paired up with another type of genre, such as horror (one of the more common ones) or action/adventure. In 1980, romance stories were way down the list of genres that commonly got paired up with sci-fi, probably because no one had tried it before. Since genres are really just a shorthand used to define specific elements familiar to audiences in service of a story, Mattheson and the filmmaker decided to try and tell a new type of story using time travel as the instigator. Since then, there have been many love stories with time travel backbones, including About Time, Time Freak, and The Time Traveler’s Wife.

Somewhere in Time

Richard makes his intentions clear to Robinson, even though Robinson as blocked his advances at every turn.

Societal Commentary

Somewhere in Time’s main theme is about love. Not the When Harry Met Sally kind of love, where two people grow comfortable with each other and realize they love one another. This is the teenage, aching-heart, how-can-I-go-on-without-them sort of love. True, unabashed romanticism. In a non sci-fi film, Richard would find the older picture of Elise, become smitten, and then find some doppelganger of the actress to fall in love with (who might be a reincarnation of the original woman). But with the means of time travel, all Richard has to do is go back to the early 20th Century and find the woman he has become enamored with. It is rife with all the sayings about true love, such as being able to move heaven and earth, and then literally dying of a broken heart. It is as if they were destined to be together.

The film also deals with a woman’s place in the early 20th Century. Elise might have had a career but was not really in control of her life. She may seem as a more driven personality (befitting a modern woman) but was still constrained by the societal norms of her era. She speaks to Richard of the warnings of her manager, William Fawcett Robinson, that a man would come along to change her life. Given the elements of sci-fi already in the film, could it mean that Robinson has some sort of psychic powers of premonition? That certainly is one reading of the situation, but the easiest suggestion is that Robinson is only trying to protect his investment. He is probably acutely aware that a woman as beautiful as Ms. McKenna will have male suitors courting her. Were she to fall in love and start a family, that would be it for her acting career. His goal, now that he has discovered her, is to keep her “safe” and working, thus ensuring the level of comfort and wealth he has become accustomed to.

Of course, in true fashion, the more Robinson tightens his grip around Elise to prevent Richard from affecting her life, the more he encourages the couple. He has created a forbidden mystery around this man that may show up to greet Elise, so when Richard arrives with intimate knowledge of Elise’s life, it makes her more susceptible to the idea of a romance. Robinson’s final confrontation with Richard seals the deal, by making Elise run back to him, saving him, and pledging her love to him. It serves as a reminder that all things in life are fleeting and the more you try to hold onto something the quicker it will leave your life.

Somewhere in Time

Heartbroken, Richard is certain he’ll never see Elise again, until she reappears in the garden below.

The Science in The Fiction

From a perspective of time travel stories in particular, Somewhere in Time may be more of a realistic portrayal of time travel. “Realistic” in the sense that there’s no technological mumbo-jumbo that gets presented as a way to move through time. It’s not the creation of a machine, or a strange wormhole, or some other invention. In this case it’s the willpower and determination of the individual that drives them back through the years.

The film presents time travel as a scientific discovery as part of the nature of the universe. Humans exist in the time that they do because they believe that is where they belong. Somewhere in Time posits that if one could trick oneself into believing that it is a different time or era, the reality of that moment would present itself and become reality for the traveler. Using self-hypnosis as the pseudo-science to transition Christopher Reeve from 1980 to 1912 creates a different and potentially plausible alternative time travel. Who’s to say that willing yourself to exist in a different time isn’t something that would work? Or does the entire adventure exist in a waking dream only in the characters head?

That is also a possibility. Richard could have entered the hotel room and convinced himself that he was in 1912, having adventures and romance with Elise, but never actually having left the room. His belief may have been so strong that the entirety of his time travel experience may have been a fiction of his own mind. The human brain is a powerful device which might possibly create the idea that he had time traveled due to his own belief that it would work. His love for Elise was real and thus his death at the end a potential physical reaction to the stresses of his belief.

Somewhere in Time

Having been returned to 1980 against his will, Richard consoles himself at the picture of Elise before passing away in his hotel room.

The Final Frontier

It should be unsurprising to state that fans of the film flock to the Grand Hotel to revisit the moments from the movie. There is even one weekend set aside in October for a special Somewhere in Time fan event, which hosts screenings of the film, panels, and costume contests. A truly apropos film for the romantic at heart.

Somewhere in Time, along with The Final Countdown, opened the possibilities for different types of time travel stories to exist. It also proved that the hybridization of sci-fi and other genres were a potential unexplored avenue in the future of cinema. These elements would grow and define the expanse of sci-fi cinema in the 1980s, and beyond, as the combination of new story types would be explored.

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