“Einstein once wrote in a letter to a friend that the distinction between past and present and the future is just a stubbornly persistent illusion.” Those are the words of Rob Niosi, one of the subjects in Jay Cheel’s new documentary How To Build a Time Machine. The illusory nature of time is true in cinema as well – a film can pack so much information. Niosi, an animator from Pee Wee’s Playhouse, is building the titular replica from the 1960 adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. The second subject of the film is Ronald Mallett, a professor in the University of Connecticut studying Einstein’s theories about time travel. Cheel puts his cards on the table and reveals his subjects’ motivations within the film’s first fifteen minutes, a way of storytelling so refreshing because many movies drag their feet revealing what their characters or subjects want. Getting those revelations out of the way the film focuses on comparing methodology and digs deeper on the film’s themes.
I am using dry if not cryptic words to describe the documentary because it’s easy to be irreverent about its subject matter. Niosi, in choosing to use real materials, is taking longer to make his time machine than other Wells enthusiasts and longer than the prop men in the original film. And the doc delves into why some people reach out to those who study time travel the way Mallett does. These scenarios, as well as describing them are prone to be bungled under lesser hands. Controversy is the thing that sells documentaries these days, and on the other hand some of the film in the genre veer on hagiography. It’s commendable that Cheel, while showing that his subjects are capable of self-awareness, is approaching them with respect. And the film is the rare example of cases where people sound more sane the more they speak, a product when Cheels storytelling and the subjects’ eloquence combine.
A hurdle that Cheel’s documentary successfully jumps over is cynicism over ‘weird’ ideas. It’s noticeable that both Niosi and Mallett are baby boomers, a generation who have had their fun but want to hold on to the people before them. Before the film’s title card is up, Niosi describes his and most people’s nostalgia, a sentiment that more people my generation are denouncing, a group well aware of the limitations of the present as well as the horrors of our past. But Niosi also talks to the people who help him make his machine and they discuss the discomforts of the past but they also have bucket lists of things they want to see or do if they can turn back time, just like we do. The film also delves into the main thing in Mallett’s bucket list. I also at first couldn’t help notice how much time and money it takes to achieve what both subjects want. But here’s the thing about ‘weird’ people like Niosi and Mallett and why we need to see more of them in films – they’re minds are larger, they’re more hard working, and they’re capable of love that is greater than mere mortals can fathom.
How To Build A Time Machine is playing at the Royal Cinema here in Toronto.