The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.
All throughout history, there have been dreamers grabbing society by the coat tails and dragging them (kicking and screaming) into a world where the impossible exists. Copernicus’ theories on the universe and the Wright brothers taking flight are examples of brilliant men with ambitions that exceeded what was thought possible. More recently, Neil Armstrong’s lunar walk and Apple’s iPhone debut both seemed virtually impossible just a scant few years before they took place. What’s impossible today may be unlikely tomorrow and common place the day after that.
In 2016, time travel only exists in the realm of science-fiction. Ask a physicist however, and theoretical probability leaves time travel’s doorway open just a crack. That infinitesimally small chance is all the motivation a dreamer needs to begin imposing their will on the impossible.
In 1960, a couple of impressionable kids in different parts of the country both watched the film adaptation of the classic H.G. Wells novel, The Time Machine. The Time Machine’s themes would leave an indelible mark on the young boys and affect the men they grew into (Rob Niosi and Ron Mallett). Canadian director Jay Cheel’s documentary, How to Build a Time Machine focuses on Niosi and Mallett and their very different (yet equally obsessive) approaches to challenging time’s passage.
Rob Niosi is building an intricate replica of the machine used in George Pal’s The Time Machine adaptation. Niosi’s construction of the craft eventually shifts from passion project to obsession, and he spends years of his life recreating the machine in painstaking detail. Ron Mallett is a theoretical physicist. As a boy, Mallett lost his father to a heart condition. Since then, Mallett has dedicated his life to understanding the laws of time and space. Mallett’s goal is to crack the mystery behind travel so that he can go back and save his father.
Kudos to Cheel for finding such fascinating subjects to feature in his film. Niosi is a natural on screen and a true gift to documentary film making; he bristles with excitement as he speaks to the camera. Niosi is also a bit of an odd-ball, fortunately his eccentricities add to his charm. Niosi comes off like a favorite uncle, one that always shows up with cool stories and finds enough change in his pocket to buy ice cream later on. Mallett is equally passionate and holds his own on camera, although exudes a calm, stern demeanor. Anyone who joined their high-school’s science club will be fascinated as Mallett explains the technical aspects of time travel. While Mallett does an exceptional job breaking things down into layman’s terms, his segments in the film lack the wide-eyed enthusiasm that Niosi brings.
Both men are looking to attain the impossible; Niosi seeks an unattainable level of perfection for his replication; Mallett wants to live out a Doctor Who-like time travel fantasy. What makes How to Build a Time Machine such a great documentary is that it’s not just interested in watching Niosi and Mallett chase after their eccentric goals. Cheel really keys in on the nature of fixation. While Niosi and Mallett are always moving forward towards their goals, they are actually chasing down moments from their lives that are far behind them. Cheel spends a significant amount of time examining what drives these men to romanticize the past.
When a documentary focuses on subjects as charismatic as Mallett and Niosi, it’s easy to just point the camera at them and shoot — the material would still be riveting. Fortunately, Cheel goes the extra mile and ensures How to Build a Time Machine’s look is as compelling as its subject matter. Cheel has a magnificent eye and he imbues many of hiss film’s scenes with stylish framing and slick camera movement befitting of a music video. How to Build a Time Machine’s polished cinematic look is a real treat to see in a documentary.
Father time is undefeated, but that doesn’t stop people from stepping up and challenging him for his crown. The human spirit inherently wants to test limits, push boundaries, and achieve the impossible. In order to do so, society must produce dreamers and forward thinkers willing to go against the grain, often at cost of personal sacrifice. Mallett and Niosi are perfect examples of the type of knowledgeable and inspired individuals that drive scientific and artistic innovation. How to Build a Time Machine is as inspiring as it is enjoyable, a must see for anyone who ever dared to think outside the box.