'How to Build a Time Machine': Film Review

Courtesy of Subject
An odd pair of obsessive subjects add up to a surprisingly affecting doc.

Two men pursue childhood fantasies in very different ways in Jay Cheel's documentary.

Less an evaluation of a sci-fi trope's feasibility than a nerd-friendly meditation on how we develop the fixations that will dominate our lives, Jay Cheel's How to Build a Time Machine introduces two middle-aged men whose exposure to an eon-leaping H.G. Wells story pointed them in very different directions. Unusually handsome for a niche documentary, the film should charm auds on the fest circuit and make a respectable showing on video. If Spike Lee ever makes his promised adaptation of one subject's memoir, the doc's profile will rise significantly.

Lee has shown interest in Time Traveler in which theoretical physicist Ronald Mallett explains how losing his beloved father at the age of 11 pushed him into a lifelong obsession with time travel. Encountering Wells and then Einstein at a young age, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force expressly so he could pay for the education he'd need to understand how space-time works.

Robert Niosi went a different route. A former stop-motion animator who clearly likes his hobbies, Niosi at one point had the idea of building a replica of a movie prop that had entranced him in childhood: the sled-like contraption in George Pal's 1960 The Time Machine. He figured it would take around three months, but his attention to detail got the best of him: As he began forsaking plastic for milled brass, replacing pine with mahogany and hunting down others with their own replicas, the project stretched out over a decade.

Viewers may disagree about which of these men is engaged in a bigger waste of time. But the doc finds them both likable, and it's hard not to feel the poignant sense of loss driving them. As Mallett, now an established scientist and professor, describes his theory that a system of redirected laser light might "twist space" in a way that alters space-time, the audience might just be tempted to buy into his dream.

Though each man muses a bit about what he'd do if his machine actually worked, Cheel's focus on process — with lovely scenes of Niosi in his workshop, for instance — makes it clear he doesn't think that's the point. Both men have found something to care about while life moves them inexorably toward the future, and that's something not all of us can say.


Production company: Primitive Entertainment

Director-Screenwriter-Director of photography-Editor: Jay Cheel

Producers: Kristina McLaughlin, Kevin McMahon, Michael McMahon

Composers: Ohad Benchetrit, Justin Small

Venue: DOC NYC


83 minutes