Celebrating a Movie the Critics Hated

SomewhereInTimeThumbby David Paulin
Message to high-brow movie critics and cultural elites: Stay away from the Grand Hotel on Michigan’s Mackinac Island this weekend. No cynicism allowed! Not among the nearly 800 “time travelers” who arrived on Friday at the historic Grand Hotel — the start of a three-day gathering during which they’ll dress up in period garb and (in their minds) transport themselves back to 1912. The fanciful journey has been an annual ritual for 23 years now, bringing together incurable romantics from all over the country, and even abroad. It’s a celebration of the 1980 movie “Somewhere in Time“– a bittersweet love story involving time travel and shot mostly in and around the majestic 126-year-old Grand Hotel.

The film’s message: love is eternal.

Critics hated “Somewhere in Time.” Vincent Canby wrote in The New York Times that the film had the year’s highest “giggle content,” and “does for time-travel what the Hindenburg did for dirigibles.” Deriding the film’s “romantic idealism,” SomewhereInTiimePhotoRoger Ebert asked in the Chicago Sun-Times whether it wasn’t “a little futile to travel 68 years backward into time for a one-night stand.”

Yet “Somewhere in Time” is now a beloved cult classic — all of which underscores the amusing perception gap that often exists between ordinary movie audiences and cultural elites (and especially movie critics). But that’s not news to Jo Addie, an antiques dealer in the Chicago area, who is president of the “Somewhere in Time” fan club and editor of its quarterly magazine. “You could hardly imagine a critic putting words to paper saying they truly love a movie like “Somewhere in Time,” she wrote in an e-mail message. “It would have them losing their ‘credibility’ or their ‘edge’. “Somewhere in Time” is not for the jaded or cynical.”

Released nationwide in early October, 1980, “Somewhere in Time” ran for three short weeks. It flopped at box offices, a fate attributed not only to bad reviews, but to bad marketing and bad luck. Among other things: an actors strike was underway. This prevented its actors from promoting it, for doing so would have violated the Screen Actors Guild’s work rules. Universal Studios, for its part, never really believed in the film, having whittled down director Jeannot Szwarc’s budget to a bare-bones $5.1 million.

Cult Following

Yet over the years cable television reruns and video rentals have elevated “Somewhere in Time” to the status of a cult classic in America and abroad. It’s especially popular in Asia. A devoted fan club sprung up in 1990: “The International Network of Somewhere In Time Enthusiasts.” Known by the acronym INSITE, it has been headed by Addie since 1999. Above all, INSITE says it strives to “celebrate the message of timeless love that “Somewhere in Time” represents.”

And so during the first weekend of October, as Mackinac Island’s tourism season winds down, aficionados of “Somewhere in Time” – mostly married couples in their 50s – dress up in period attire; go to screenings of the film; and meet with cast and crew members to discuss the fine points of the movie’s production. (Christopher Reeve, Jean Seymour, and screenwriter Richard Matheson are [pullquote]Today, however, DVDs of “Ordinary People” gather dust at video stores, while videos of “Somewhere in Time” are rented over and over again. Which perhaps underscores how Hollywood over the years has become increasingly out of touch with mainstream America.[/pullquote]among many who have attended.) There is a costume promenade and visits to film locations. And Mackinac Island is the perfect place to get into a time-traveling mood: Motor vehicles are banned there — only bicycles and horse-drawn carriages are allowed, thank you.

Cost for this year’s time-traveling experience: $1,000 to $1,300 per couple. To be sure, more than a few single people attend, including “twenty-somethings,” Addie said. “The film is about ‘finding the one’, and while many films have that as their theme, this one goes further — it gives people hope. If they have not yet found the one, it gives them hope that they still will. If they have found the one, it gives them hope it will last forever.”

And sometimes, time travelers actually do find “the one”…among fellow time travelers at the Grand Hotel! “It’s a fine place to become engaged. That happens every year, and some even marry during “Somewhere in Time Weekend,” said Addie, who’s been married 37 years. Her husband Jim, an audio engineer and consultant, helps with INSITE and was an extra in the film (for one evening), while she was an extra, at age 23, for what she calls “three glorious weeks.” This year’s “Somewhere in Time Weekend” is sold out.

“Is time travel possible?”

Young playwright Richard Collier (Christopher Reeve) puts that question to his former college philosophy professor in the opening scenes of “Somewhere in Time.” The answer, as Collier discovers, is yes; and shortly thereafter he wakes up in the Grand Hotel, having traveled back from 1980 to June 27, 1912. Soon, he meets the beautiful and famous stage actress Elise McKenna (Jane Seymour). They’ve met before, he realizes: She was the mysterious elderly woman (Susan French) who had placed a pocket watch in his hand eight years earlier. “Come back to me,” she says.

Richard and Elise fall madly in love. They are suddenly separated, briefly reunited, and then, tragically, Collier suffers an absurd time-traveling mishap: He dissolves in front of a horrified Elise and is transported — against his will — back to 1980. The movie ends with the couple reunited in death, while bathed in a lovely white light.

Perception Gap

Yes, the critics had some things right: “Somewhere in Time” was implausible, contrived, overly sentimental; and there of course was no nifty time machine; no dazzling special effects or gadgetry. Instead, Richard Collier embarks on his time-traveling journey through an elaborate bit of self-hypnosis. Yet for audiences, the movie had a special something. Critics laughed and sneered; yet audiences were moved to tears. How to explain this?

Critics and audiences inhabit different worlds: the former sit at free private screenings, the later pay for a box-office ticket, enjoy a “group experience” and want to be entertained: So says Hollywood screenwriter Robert Avrech, whose thriller “Body Double” (1984) was panned by many critics yet got a glowing review from Roger Ebert, who praised it as “an exhilarating exercise in pure filmmaking, a thriller in the Hitchcock tradition.” “Body Double” is now a cult classic. “Critics are cultural commissars who have no connection to the market place of movies,” Avrech explained in an e-mail. “Audiences just want to sit in the dark and become engrossed in a ripping good yarn.”

“Somewhere in Time” combines love with time travel, a wonderful combination,” he explained. “I know, I won an Emmy Award for my film “The Devil’s Arithmetic” (1999) which is a time travel story and, yup, a love story. Like Marcel Proust’s Madeleine, we are all aware of the limits and ravages of time. And yet we like to imagine, we want to believe, that love is bound by neither time or space.”

“Somewhere in Time” was a labor of love for its cast and crew. Addie recalls only upbeat experiences as an extra. Because of the tight budget, Christopher Reeve worked for a reduced fee because he believed so strongly in Richard Matheson’s screenplay. Reeve was interested in moving on from “Superman” (to his agent’s dismay) to play more complex roles. Composer John Barry, a four-time Academy Award winner, also loved the script that friend Jane Seymour had sent him; and so he worked for less than he could have gotten elsewhere to produce his highly acclaimed score.

Richard Matheson’s screenplay was based on his 1975 science fiction novel “Bid Time Return.” Baby boomers are no strangers to his influential works, now shining ornaments of American popular culture: “The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957); “What Dreams May Come” (1998); and sixteen memorable “Twilight Zone” episodes, including “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” “Nick of Time,” and “Little Girl Lost.”

To be sure, it wasn’t just movie critics who hated “Somewhere in Time.” So did Hollywood elites. In 1981, “Somewhere in Time” was nominated for only one Academy Award — Best Costume Design — but lost out to Roman Polanski’s “Tess.” Best Picture award went to “Ordinary People,” a movie the critics adored; it dealt with a dysfunctional upper-middle class family in Lake Forrest, Illinois. Today, however, DVDs of “Ordinary People” gather dust at video stores, while videos of “Somewhere in Time” are rented over and over again. Which perhaps underscores how Hollywood over the years has become increasingly out of touch with mainstream America. It’s a subject Avrech has tackled at his personal blog, Seraphic Secret. For him, movies like “Ordinary People” are part of the problem.

“Ordinary People is, well, boring and depressing, and like a wading pool: You keep expecting it to get deeper and yet the water remains waist deep,” said Avrech. “It’s already an embarrassing cultural relic and every critic who crowed over such a pretentious movie should publicly admit that they were duped by so-called high-art. “Somewhere In Time” is charming, entertaining and optimistic, whereas “Ordinary People” takes cheap Freudian shots at mothers. Mary Tyler Moore’s performance was praised to heaven. But look at it now and you feel like cringing. Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour deliver heartfelt performances that move — excuse the pun — ordinary people.”

He added: “I like “Somewhere in Time.” Is it one of my favorite movies? No. Not even close. But so what? I am touched by its vision of timeless love. The costumes are great and so are the locations. Jane Seymour and Christopher Reeve are highly underrated actors.”

In 1984, “Somewhere in Time” was released in Asia and became a major hit. Hong Kong’s Palace Theater ran the film for 18 months before packed houses. How to explain this? Addie got the answer from a “Somewhere in Time” fan, an expert on Asian culture. “He explained that in all (Asian) cultural myths, there is a man on a noble quest that is seemingly impossible and unattainable (time travel); and he is seeking a goal that is totally pure and beautiful (Elise). He has SomewhereInTiimePhoto2to struggle against impossible odds and obstacles to reach his goal, and give up much, even sometimes his life, the ultimate sacrifice.”

To be sure, the cult status of “Somewhere in Time” is international. “We have had attendees from Japan, Australia, Brazil, Peru, and many from the U.K. and European countries,” said Addie. “Last year we had a couple from Ukraine.”

And just for the record, she says, “Somewhere in Time” is not a ‘chick flick.’ Fifty percent of its devoted fans are men. It was written by a man; the fan society was founded by a man (Bill Shepard); and it is told entirely from a man’s point of view — it’s Richard’s story.”

In 2000, Universal Studios released a 20th Anniversary Special Edition DVD of “Somewhere in Time” that included bonus material about INSITE, including interviews with Jo Addie and Bill Shepard. And now, the timeless love story of Richard Collier and Elise McKenna may be heading to Broadway. A musical production of “Somewhere in Time” had a five-week run last May in Portland, Oregon, and New York theater producer Ken Davenporthas his sights set on Broadway. Sadly, Richard Matheson didn’t make it to the Portland opening, having died last June 23. “He was enthusiastically behind this new chapter for his story of Richard and Elise,” said Addie.

Yes, critics may sneer, but as Addie explained: “Somewhere in Time” is for people who have old-fashioned values, believe in true love and commitment, are romantic at heart, and feel displaced in our violent and chaotic world, and wish for a better one.”

She and fellow time travelers have a message for Hollywood: make more movies like “Somewhere in Time.”

The INSITE official website is here.


Available for streaming on Netflix. Available on a collector’s edition DVD ($9.47 new, $3.49 used) or Amazon Instant Video ($2.99).


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12 Responses to Celebrating a Movie the Critics Hated

  1. Kung Fu Zu says:

    This movie was constantly being brought back all the years I lived in Asia. Asian women ate it up.

    Asian cultures do not have much history of encouraging romantic love so I think the movie touches something many Asian women believe they might like to experience, but have not run up against.

    If one looks at the marriage statistics in Asia, it is clear that many Asian women have decided that traditional marriage is not for them.

    But I am not at all sure the Western concept of “romantic love” fits in with traditional Asia values. I believe it is something they associate with a romanticized version of the West.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Do Asians like Hollywoodized “chick flicks” just as we like the exotic nature of samurai films? Is that sort of what you’re saying? Could be, if so.

      And although I haven’t seen this film in years (and do like it), I do agree with David that this isn’t a “chick flick.” But it is a bit chick flickish, if you know what I mean.

      And I don’t know if Jane Seymour is particularly under-rated, but she has long been a favorite of mine. She is my ideal of female beauty. And I loved her in the Bond film.

      Also, I just want to say what a pleasure it was to read this article. Rather than caving to the Culture Wars, as Jonah Goldberg has, Mr. Paulin has refuted some of the inane and superficial aspects of top-down intellectualism-oriented culture. I hope in my criticism of films that I never try to set myself above them or be holier-than-thou. I hope I never try to be too smart by half. The pretentiousness in and around Hollywood (and everything to do with the Left) is rampant.

      • Kung Fu Zu says:

        I believe the popularity of this film was pretty specific. I do not recall any other Hollywoodized “chick flicks” being so popular.

        I, too, like Jane Seymour. When I heard her dumpy accountant husband got caught fooling around on her, I couldn’t believe it.

        Who knows what goes on in someone’s marriage?

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          I’m not a celeb-watcher. And I doubt that you are too other than what can’t help seeping into your life.

          But to cheat on Jane Seymour? That ought to be an oxymoron. You never know what’s going on in someone’s life. And I can love an actor’s performance even if they are questionable people. No one’s perfect. And as it often is with the art, some of the strangest people tend to be the greatest artist.

          But even so, I couldn’t cheat on Seymour. That would be like breaking some kind of Cosmic law. And she’s one of the people that I gladly don’t compartmentalize. I just assume she’s the angel she so often portrays. Don’t spoil it for me if that’s not true. A guy’s got to have his healthy delusions.

          • Kung Fu Zu says:

            You are correct, I don’t pay attention to celebs. But such info does, inevitably, seep into one’s hearing.

            The reason it stuck with me is that I have pretty much the same opinion of Jane Seymour that you have.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          By the way, this is streamable on Netflix. I might just watch it again. I remember liking this movie very much. But that was, what?, twenty-five years ago or more?

          I was rather surprised that it had become a cult classic. And I had no idea that they had special gatherings. Considering that this is a classy, not a trashy, film, that would seem to be a good thing. And it fits in right with my general shtick: Let’s hang onto the good things, especially while the Left is trashing nearly everything in our culture.

  2. Timothy Lane says:

    Well, I don’t recall ever hearing of the movie, though naturally I’m quite familiar with Reeve (from the Superman movies and Deathtrap), Seymour (from the Bond movie), and Matheson (from his fiction and his Twilight Zone work). Perhaps I should check it out sometime, though there are certain difficulties about doing that right now.
    As for Body Double, which I HAVE seen, it’s not merely in the Hitchock tradition, but an updating of Vertigo, including its version of the stairwell shots in the latter. As well as being pornographic both for sex and violence (neither of which Hitchcock would have done, though this may partly have reflected the standards of the time).

  3. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I watched the first half of this on Netflix tonight. It is indeed a very solid movie.

  4. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    A few further thoughts on the first half (or just over the first half) of “Somewhere in Time”:

    This is really more of a good made-for-TV type of movie. And I’m not damning it with faint praise. But neither Reeve or Seymour are particularly great actors.

    But they do provide a very nice framework upon which to hang a romantic story if only because of their ideal physical presence.

    The idea of love, true love, is an old one. There have been various modern conceits that love was supposedly “invented” during the Renaissance — or before (I forget the details) — but it’s difficult to imagine that there weren’t affairs of the human heart thousands of years ago.

    And that is what this movie is about. In the words of “The Princess Bride,” it’s about “wuv, twu wuv.” It’s a great ideal, nay, a great reality for many. But as this movie shows us, wuv, twu wuv tends to burn brightly and is slightly dangerous (if only to others) and not quite stable.

    If wuv, twu wuv was so commonplace would it be valued as highly as we do? It is a reality and an ideal that can drive humans to crazy things. But in “Somewhere in Time” we are captivated by the idea that wuv, twu wuv is a distinct possibility. We lead desperately lonely and somewhat meaningless lives without it.

    But wuv, tuw wuv is a double-edged sword. Not only does it enliven our lives to the point of bursting, when that love is gone (for whatever reason) our lives then can suddenly seem more lonely than ever without it. Perhaps the person who said “It is better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all” was not aware of the desolate life of Elise McKenna (Jane Seymour) when she had lost her twu wuv of her youth. According to this movie, she was left a hollowed-out shell of a person. The joy gone. The desire even for living, diminished.

    “Come back to me” is what the eighty-something Elise beckons to Richard Collier (Christopher Reeve) in the present of the 1980’s. And he does. But not for good. This kind of wuv, twu wuv burns brightly but seemingly cannot endure long in its pure form. But it is so great, so worthwhile, so transcendently fulfilling that a man will literally cross time to pursue it with no guarantees other than the idea of it.

  5. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I finished the second half of “Somewhere in Time” last night. And this confirmed my instinct that this was a movie best watched once, enjoyed, and then left to sit in the vault of fond memories.

    Some movies are like that. They are good for one viewing and not much more. And I found this to be the case with “Somewhere in Time.”

    But, again, I did find the first half of the film to be engaging, as I had said in my first-half review. It involves Christopher Reeve unraveling the mystery of this woman, her past, and what part he plays in the story. This is all good fun.

    But the second half of the movie concentrates on the romance. And this I found to be mostly lukewarm. Reeve — god bless him — isn’t a particularly good actor, and his half of the romance was rather stilted and contrived. The chemistry between him and Seymour just isn’t there.

    And I consider it fighting words if anyone so much as messes with one hair on the head of “The Sound of Music.” But outside of that movie, I’ve never found Christopher Plummer to be particularly engaging. And he is not in his role as the over-protective mentor of Jane Seymour’s character.

    And neither the romance or the villain aspect of this movie are fleshed out to much of a degree. Why is Plummer so over-protective? What does he seem to know about Reeve? Does Plummer love Seymour? What you get is belligerence from Plummer without any motivation. It just doesn’t make sense.

    Granted, it was nice that the romance between Reeve and Seymour did not consist of the cliche of: Boy meets girl. Boy and girl love. Boy and girl have a falling out. Boy and girl get back together again. But other than avoiding that cliche, it didn’t have all that much to it. On the screen there is professed a deep love between them, but never is that love given anything much to hang its hat on. There is barely any dialogue between the two. It’s a story that is very much over-romanticize to the point of, well, being a bit of a cliche.

    Still, I think there is a good story here. I would love to see a modern remake that had better acting and a more nuanced and fleshed-out story. But it’s doubtful that anyone could improve on the soundtrack which is the highlight of this movie.

    I watched this movie for the second time (since at least around 1985, I’m guessing) knowing that it was probably a bad idea to do so. I have a bit of a sixth sense for the kind of movies where it is best to leave well enough alone. And “Somewhere in Time” was one of those movies. But what the hell.

  6. griffonn says:

    I remember this movie. To me it brings back memories of a dorm basement full of kids watching it together, and everyone who didn’t enjoy it left early. College kids were allowed to be romantic back in those days. Beautiful soundtrack.

    But a lot of complaints about how the implausible time-travel device didn’t mesh well with the level of detail and realism present throughout the rest of the film. It is for many just too big a jump to be able to believe that you can transcend time by simply willing or wishing or loving real hard. Other wish-stories of that sort usually involve a third element, a magic source that explains why these people can do it but ordinary people (you and I) cannot hope to replicate the experiment at home. Skipping the magic talisman both makes it implausible and also gives it a curious power – and I have no doubt that the somewhat defiant nature of that power is exactly what the film industry elite disliked so much about it.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Griffonn, I really did like this movie when I saw it sometime in my mid to late twenties. And it’s no fault of the filmmakers that it now impresses me as a bit thin.

      But it is thin, if only by comparison because I have grown thicker (in more ways than one) over the years. But we all do hopefully grow up and don’t have the same tastes when we were seventeen (which is the age the mass-marketers and Democrats seem intent on keeping us at).

      This movie (appropriately) is sort of like a one-off Twilight Zone episode. It’s good for a laugh the first time round but once you’ve seen the gimmick, there’s not much left.

      Again, I think an intelligent remake of this movie is doable. But it has to avoid such huge plot inconsistencies such as when Jane Seymour’s first words to Reeve when she meets him walking on the beach in front of the Grand Hotel are “Are you the one?” Okay, that’s a hint that she has some idea that there is some strange thing going on, but we’re never let in on what she knows or how she know it.

      The same with Christopher Plummer’s character. He seems to know who Reeve is, but how? Why? It’s never fleshed out.

      And there are charming little sub-plots such as Arthur, whom Reeve meets as both an old man and a boy. But this character is left as a mere novelty. It’s in no way creatively woven into the plot. There were opportunities there not realized.

      This movie is so relatively thin that only the physical beauty of both leads and the great music and photogenic setting can make you forget — just once, at least for me — that this movie is so thin and bereft of the kind of substance I now need being a little older than seventeen.

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