By Alexander Wallace
Much like the piece I did on Roll Northumbria, this little film is one of those wonderful little things that an algorithm, in its unthinking wizardry, decided to give to me. In this case, it was Prime Video, and it’s still available on that service, at least in the United States. The title caught my eye and the description intrigued me; an honest-to-god mockumentary about the development of a time machine.
In that regard, it’s probably the purest we’ll ever get to an audiovisual form of an alternate history timeline, barring maybe SpikeTV’s Nazi victory or CSA: the Confederate States of America. It was done to me in a spirit that I think inhabits things like Festung Europa or For Want of a Nail: that desire to immerse the consumer of the media in another world entirely. Much handwringing has been done over accusations of worldbuilding over story, but I think there is something to be said about a well-constructed allohistorical world that is pleasing on its own.
Fortunately, this little mockumentary is a very good story both in terms of its characters and in the broader history around it. At its core, the story is about an American attempt to create a time machine during World War II in fears that the Germans may get it first (an effort called the Indiana Project, which is explicitly stated to have been in partial competition with the Manhattan Project). From there, it goes into how such technology is used in the Cold War.
But on a more personal level, it concerns the chief scientist of that project, his dedication, his family, and the legacy he leaves. How all of that works is rather complex and I won’t spoil it, but there is a very real human core in this film that many alternate history works simply lack. You feel fascination and loss and yearning for a better day through the intensely human beings that form the core of this time travel story.
In terms of how the story is formatted, which is probably the most interesting thing in a very interesting film: imagine one of the screwier SCP articles combined with the sort of otherworldly atmosphere of a Ted Chiang story. As the world that the film portrays changes, the reality of the film itself changes. That’s a bit hard to explain; as a character goes back in time and changes history, the film will treat the new history created as the one that has always existed, at least until time is changed again. Characters now have new jobs, or new characters spring up, or there are subtle hints in the background. This is most obvious on a personal level with the fate of the lead scientist, and most obvious on a background level with the ensuing Cold War and how much that changes (this is where the bulk of the alternate history comes in). Following all these strands through the duration of the film is complex, but it’s like a big puzzle; the process of figuring it out is part of the fun.
Ultimately, I found that A History of Time Travel is far more daring in its treatment of a well-worn subject than most Hollywood productions even dream of. Its breadth of vision earns it a place among the great works involving time travel, like David Gerrold’s The Man Who Folded Himself or H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine (and its ambitious authorized sequel, The Time Ships by Stephen Baxter) or Ted Chiang’s The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate. It is a film that is absolutely willing to deal with the stranger aspects of the central concept, and in doing so it has created something very memorable.