What would you do if you could travel back in time? That’s less the key question than an existential springboard for director Jay Cheel in his second feature-length documentary, How to Build a Time Machine, a film whose blueprints lack the secret to temporal displacement but make up for that denial with an affecting investigation of the origins of lifelong fandom, the creative positives of obsession, the endurability of H.G. Wells’ classic yarn, and how memories of the emotional past inform the present.
How to Build a Time Machine zeroes in specifically on the lives of Rob Niosi, a retired stop-motion animator, and Ronald L. Mallett, Ph.D, a theoretical physicist and professor at University of Connecticut — the former a creative artisan, the latter a passionate intellectual, both possessing a spiritual linkage to their fixation. A former crew member of the “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” animation team, Niosi caught the bug amid childhood when he saw George Pal’s 1960 adaptation of Wells’ The Time Machine on the big screen, an experience which solidified itself as the seed for his chief middle-aged obsession: building an exact replica of Bill Ferrari’s titular contraption. Mallett’s preoccupation, on the other hand, stems from discovering the story through a pulp magazine, leading to him becoming one of the most respected thinkers in the field with his stance on the possibility of time travel through utilizing Einsteinian theory.
Director Cheel, whose own passion for time travel was first put to cinema in his debut short, Obsessed & Scientific, keeps the movie light on its feet with a jaunty pace and a dynamic directorial playbook. He’s, thankfully, not content with simply pointing his camera at a succession of talking heads, juxtaposing interviews with complementary stock footage and a few silent montages depicting process. There’s a sublimely composed visual sequence in the back-half of Rob assembling his homemade replica, which effectively evokes the man’s sense of precision, devotion, and care toward his craft —even something seemingly mundane such as faulty decal application triggers anxiety in the viewer. Furthermore, the film takes a meta-textual route when Mallett draws comparisons between time travel and the film medium: “Cinema, in a way, is a time machine…it records what’s happening at the moment, but we only see it in retrospect.”
Where How to Build a Time Machine achieves a haunting poetry is in its inquiry into the memories and emotional truths lurking behind the compulsion. Both obsessives have lost someone close to them — Mallett’s father passed away amid childhood, while Niosi’s high school friend died in a vehicular accident moments after leaving a reunion — which eventually inspires musings on the nature of fate and chance. The documentary reaches its emotional crescendo when Mallett reveals a desire to employ time travel as an agent to possibly elongate his father's life with information of the man's demise, while, intellectually, understanding that, via the ripple effect, such an act would theoretically alter his life’s trajectory — a dialogic discourse between the two selves: the emoter and the thinker. Here, Cheel and his subjects locate the humanity and the beauty in scientific conceits, the generation of concrete emotional resonance sourced from an abstract, as-of-yet-nonexistent catalyst. That’s no easy task.
How to Build a Time Machine will screen at PhilaMOCA, as part of the Cinedelphia Film Festival, on Tuesday, April 25th at 7:30pm. Event details and tickets here.