Scientific people know very well that time is only a kind of space. We can move forward and backward in time just as we can move forward and backward in space.—H.G. Wells, The Time Machine
Like most, this story begins with love at first sight. The year was 1960, and the movie was The Time Machine, George Pal’s adaptation of H.G. Wells’s seminal novella, starring Rod Taylor. Many loved the movie, but for two young boys in particular—Rob Niosi and Ron Mallett—The Time Machine would come to shadow both of their lives, albeit in drastically different ways. Little did they suspect this movie, and the obsessions it spurred, would bring them together 50 years later.
For Niosi, The Time Machine motivated him to create his own time machine, one that could give the feeling of stepping into the past. His machine is an exact replica of the one Bill Ferrari built for the 1960 film. But Ferrari’s machine was merely a prop that only needed to give the impression of something spectacular. As long as it was photographed properly, the wood, paint, cardboard, and tape Ferrari used looked magnificent. Niosi’s time machine, on the other hand, isn’t just built to look magnificent; it is. Though he modeled his creation after the movie, Niosi bypasses the wood, cardboard, and tape in favor of durable material that would have been available to an inventor from the Victorian era. Niosi, a former stop-motion animator, chuckles upon realizing what started as a fun three-month project has grown into a nine-year obsession.
The Time Machine also begat Mallett’s love of time travel, though his obsession manifested in the theoretical, rather than the physical, realm. The University of Connecticut physics professor has spent his life researching the possibilities of time travel. Mallett knows he cannot dial back the dates like one does in the movies, but there are ways of traveling through time. Just how effective they are is his quest.
Directed by Jay Cheel, How to Build a Time Machine follows both men: Niosi as he builds his time machine and Mallett while he works through his theories. Cribbing from Errol Morris’s playbook, Cheel has Niosi and Mallett speak directly to the camera, explaining themselves to the audience with no intermediary interviews, no secondary commentary. Just Niosi and Mallett’s well-thought-out theories and rationales.
Neither looks past the connection between cinema and time travel. As Mallett points out, a camera is forever recording the past in the present tense. Furthermore, the act of watching a movie is traveling through time without the headache of Niosi’s reconstruction or Mallett’s life-long study. Though Rod Taylor is no longer with us, we can call up his ghost anytime we watch The Time Machine, just in the same way the film’s director called up the ghosts of the Victorian era to make the movie.
Maybe we can’t go forward, but we can always go back. Niosi’s machine takes him back to 1960, when he first laid eyes on the contraption. In the end, that might be enough.
How to Build a Time Machine (2016)
Written and directed by Jay Cheel
Produced by Kristina McLaughlin, Kevin McMahon, Michael McMahon
Starring: Ronald Mallett, Robert Niosi
Primitive Entertainment, Rated G, Running time 82 minutes, Premiered May 2, 2016 at Hot Docs International Documentary Festival.