TIME AFTER TIME -- AMC Skyline, Avalon 1, K-B Georgetown Square, Springfield Cinema and Weaton Plaza

H. G. Wells, in his merry Time Machine, goes chasing Jack the Ripper through history, in a curious science fiction item called "Time After Time."

Setting out in 1893, after a jolly clubby dinner, these passengers ride the machine to 1979 and San Francisco, landing smack in the middle of a museum exhibit entitled "H. G. Wells: A Man Before His Time."

And what adventures don't they have. Wells, who has been shocking London with articles on free love, meets a woman who practices what he preaches. "You're so Victorian," she complains. And poor Ripper realizes that in modern terms he is a hopelessly small-time terrorist.

If you can stand the premise of cartoony Victorian London meeting ludicrous modern San Francisco -- it's not easy to stand -- you'll find some jokes. As the time machine spins forward, the radio news travels, too: "Over There," " . . . the woman I love . . . the only thing we have to fear. . .I shall return. . .one small step for mankind. . ." When Wells poses as a detective he chooses a pseudonym ordinary modern police wouldn't recognize: "Sherlock Holmes."

The theme alternates between anachronisms and a simplistic debate between Wells and Ripper over whether humanity is perfectable. Wells has predicted utopia, but his contemporary turns on modern television -- switching from grisly violence in news to the same in cartoon and sport -- and wins the debate. Same old rotten folk.

Wells concedes and concludes that "Every age is the same: It's only love that makes any of it bearable." And that brings us back to that giant "if" of accepting the premise.

One sticking point is that Wells has fallen in love with an unbearable woman. Masquerading as the liberated woman he has always encouraged, Mary Steenburgen, as a whiney banker who uses her desk as a pick-up station and then chatters inanely about how her career is her life, could hardly be what he, or any other feminist, had in mind.

Unless, of course, you have Malcolm McDowell's Wells, who is a near-sighted, naive teddy bear. And that, to Wells fans, is going to be an enormous sticking point.