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River of Time

by Robert Fox
The Cinema Guild, Inc., NY, USA, 2006
DVD, 29 mins., color
Sales, $195; rental, $55
Distributor’s website: http://www.cinemaguild.com.

Reviewed by Andrea Dahlberg


Igor Novikov is a Russian astrophysicist living in Denmark with a gift for communicating complex theories of time to a broad, non-specialist audience. In this short film he draws the viewer in by placing his theories in a very personal context, describing how he grew up in Russia and became fascinated by a complex theoretical world that allowed him to escape the social world of Stalinist Russia where his mother was sent to the gulag and his father vanished. The film follows much the same trajectory as it moves from biography into the increasingly abstract world of time. Archive footage from the U.S., Russia, Germany and Denmark is used to illustrate the development of Novikov's theory that time is cyclical and that time travel is possible but only back to the point at which the 'time machine' or the technology that enabled it came into existence.

The film is a fascinating introduction to the subject because of Novikov's ability to communicate and his willingness to situate his work in the context of his personal life. He becomes a kind of personal guide for the viewer. The film also succeeds visually because of the use of archive footage. While the film is an excellent, very basic introduction to this abstract subject that defies most aspects of our everyday experience of life, it is not good at showing how the concepts it presents fit together. For example, Novikov describes how (theoretically) one could travel back in time to meet one's mother as a child of 4 years old if the technology which enabled this to happen had existed at the time the person's mother was 4 years old. At another point in the film he states that matter cannot change such that present matter is indeed shaped by matter past. The film does not show how these concepts are related, and the question of how one could meet one's mother aged 4 if she herself had not been through the time machine experience is raised and left unanswered. The problem here is not that the film leaves questions unanswered (this is obviously inevitable with such a subject) but that Novikov is such an excellent and willing communicator that there is no doubt that he would have been able to answer such questions (and probably did) in terms simple enough for the most unsophisticated viewer. One is left with the impression that the problem is a consequence of the way the film was edited. A decision was taken to focus on the presentation of certain concepts and not to go on to explain a few of the most elementary relationships between them.

Nevertheless, the film is a fascinating and accessible introduction to a subject that confounds our sense experience of the world.




Updated 1st September 2006

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