For better or worse, every movie is destined to become a kind of time machine, capable of transporting us instantly into the past.

However, it's been some time since time travel was used as the springboard for an entertaining movie plot.

"Time After Time," opening today at area theaters, revives one's pleasure in the venerable fantastic gimmick.

This diverting, polished chase thriller invites us to play along with an impossible fiction: H. G. Wells follows the murderous trail of Jack the Ripper, who uses Wells' time machine to escape from Victorian London to contemporary San Francisco.

Wells pursues him, and the chase continues 86 years in the future.

Nicholas Meyer, a one-time movie publicist who also became well known as the best-selling author of "The Seven-Per-Cent Solution" and "The West End Horror," makes a promising debut as a director of "Time After Time." And two Oscar-winning veterans, composer Miklos Rozsa and production designer Edward Carfagno, contribute significantly to the high-gloss finish on this proficiently superficial vehicle.

It makes conspicuous use of the Meyer specialty: Inserting historical figures in crime melodramas. Having introduced Sigmund Freud to Sherlock Holmes in "The Seven-Per-Cent Solution," Meyer worked George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde and Gilbert and Sullivan into "The West End Horror."

The convergence of H. G. Wells and a Jack the Ripper, identified as a friend of Wells -- a quiet, cunning psychopath named Dr. John Stevenson -- creates a few suspension-of-disbelief problems.

In the film, Wells is portrayed as an established literary celebrity by 1893, although he was still earning his living as a teacher then. His literary career was made possible by the successful publication of "The Time Machine" in 1895, and the pretense that he could afford to construct a time machine in his basement before he had even written the novel may prove a hurdle to informed viewers.

It's harder to forgive Meyer for perceiving Wells as a kind of impotent Mr. Chips, a gentle bookworm constantly at a disadvantage with his devious, brutal friend, or with the exceedingly coy version of Liberated Womanhood Wells discovers in 20th-century San Francisco.

The real Wells was more combative and sexually aggressive than Meyer chooses to acknowledge. It suits his ethical calculation to contrast Malcolm McDowell's unworldly literary gent to David Warner's corrupt, merciless slasher. And Meyer lets Wells act like the boy next door when he is approached by a self-assertive modern woman -- embodied by the incorrigbly affected young actress Mary Steenburgen, first seen opposite Jack Nicholson in "Goin' South."

Warner is a powerful menace: tall, glowering and wittily contemptuous.But what is to be done about the more abiding menace in the show -- Steenburgen? Her mannered style of acting creates a dim-witted cross between Zazu Pitts and Diane Keaton.

The movie derives considerable humor from confronting Wells, a progressive Victorian, with historical culture shock. Upon arrival in the present he must cope with such esoteric phenomena at McDonald's, electric toothbrushes, Mickey Mouse telephones, and automobiles.

Meyer is on firmer ground with these fleeting gags than with his patronizing depiction of Wells as an Innocent Abroad, rushing into the future because he fears that he has been responsible for loosing a homicidal maniac into what he believes will be a utopian civilation.The big irony of the voyage is supposed to be Wells' discovery that vice and ignorance still fourish -- indeed, as never before.

San Francisco has its degenerate aspects, but it's debatable whether Jack the Ripper would really feel more at home there than in the fleshpots and fog-shrouded streets of Victorian London. It is as if Meyer felt a smug satisfaction in the enhanced viciousness of his own period. But the real Wells would not have been disillusioned as profoundly as Meyer imagines.

In 1941, George Orwell wrote of Wells' books that "one finds the same idea constantly recurring: the supposed antithesis between the man of science who is working toward a planned World State and the reactionary who is trying to restore a disorderly past . . . History as he sees it is a series of victories won by the scientific man over the romantic man."

Wells had despaired of the future by the time he died in 1946, but in the 1890s he would not have been a sweet pushover. Wells himself envisioned a barbaric civilization 80,000 years in the future for "The Time Machine." His hero was a conspicuously aggressive time-traveler. Wells also went on to add a lyric visualization of the death of the planet itself from natural causes. He may have been a disappointed visionary in the long run, but he was never a timorous one.

Within the naive, shallow limits of Wells' character, McDowell gives an amusing, engaging performance. He is so ingratiating when acting cleverly that it seems a shame Meyer failed to strengthen the smart, self-confident intimations. There is one perfectly delightful bit when Wells, transported to San Francisco, is asked by the heroine, "Is that what they're wearing in London now?" He looks at his quaintly tweedy attire and replies with an ironic grin, "It was when I left." The movie needs more of this Wells.