J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, November 07, 2016

DOC NYC ’16: How to Build a Time Machine

George Pal’s 1960 adaptation of H.G. Wells’ Time Machine is considered a classic. It featured Rod Taylor’s first leading man performance and won an Oscar for best special effects. However, if I had realized the kind of cult following the film still claims, I would have pushed harder for a backlist promotion for the fifty-fifth anniversary last year (it’s a long story, with no pay-off). It all comes down to the machine itself. Several fans have lovingly reproduced life-sized facsimiles, but nobody can match the perfectionist details of animator Rob Niosi. However, if you really want to make a functional time travel vehicle, physicist Ron Mallet is the man you need to talk to. Their complimentary obsessions are explored in Jay Cheel’s How to Build a Time Machine (trailer here), which screens during DOC NYC 2016.

Niosi had been fascinated with the George Pal film and distinctive prop, ever since he saw the film at the theater where his father worked as an usher. The fifty-some intervening years were clearly good to Niosi. He now lives in an old Hollywood-style mansion and can afford to have custom parts hand-crafted out brass and copper rather than the wood and tin used for the original.

Niosi seems to enjoy the building process so much, he may never finish his time machine. In contrast, Mallet would dearly love to build a functional time machine. Like Niosi, he takes inspiration from the George Pal film and the original novella, but he is motivated by the tragic early loss of his beloved father. Mallet focused his research on black holes, because their time-warping characteristics definitely applied to his long-term goal, but it was a more academically respectable manifestation of extreme theoretical physics.

Frankly, Mallet makes a shockingly convincing case some kind of time travel might be possible. Of course, he is building on the work of eccentrics like Albert Einstein. Yet, rather poignantly, he concludes it will most likely not allow him to visit with his father, as he hoped.

In fact, Mallet emerges as quite a sad, tragic figure, albeit a brilliant one. On the other hand, Niosi seems like a bit of loon, but a relatively well-adjusted one, who brings good business to various pipe-bending and metal-dying facilities. If he enjoys tinkering with his time machine than he should just have at it.

There are some borderline revelations regarding the science of time travel in How To. Unfortunately, there are also plenty of slack moments in which we simply watch Niosi putter about in his workshop. Yet, Cheel brings the themes and strands together in the closing scenes. Twenty minutes could easily be edited out, but any film with this much food for thought is worth seeing. Recommended for DIY geeks and time travel science fiction fans, How to Build a Time Machine screens this Friday (11/11) and the following Monday (11/14) as part of this year’s DOC NYC.

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