There’s an interesting low-budget scifi flick on Amazon Prime titled “Alistair1918”. It begins with Poppy, a young sociology student assigned to film a documentary on homeless people in LA. Poppy and her film crew come across a strange man in an old-fashioned English Army uniform, living in Griffith Park and feeding on squirrels. The man claims to have been transported to modern-day LA from 1918. He gives his name as Alistair.
Spoiler alert! If you like time-travel stories you might like this one, and like any time travel story, this one depends on surprises.
Despite some defects, most, I’m sure, due to the necessities of a low-budget production, I found the story quite charming and worth watching. I will also state that “defect” is my own word, and perhaps a bit strong. The story could have been handled differently, and because it’s my own opinion about it, of course it would be a better story if handled my way!
I found the initial setup of the story to be quite effective. A documentary film crew stumbling on something unusual? Sure. A man looking like an old-fashioned English soldier, living homeless in a park in LA? Could be any number of reasons for that. Maybe the uniform was thrown out of some bankrupt studio’s Costume Department and ended up at the Goodwill. I mean, shades of “The Blair Witch Project,” right?
Although…right down to the puttees? I thought those were a good touch. Puttees haven’t been worn by soldiers since World War II. That little touch of authenticity went a long way with me. However, in a later scene we see Alistair’s boots. Some attempt was made to make them look like the stiff hobnailed boots the British infantry wore; not entirely successful, but A for effort.
There were one or two other things that might have been done to increase the authenticity of Alistair’s character. I’ll point out that external appearance is key here. Alistair states he lost his “gun” (I would’ve preferred “rifle”; I doubt a proper Brit infantryman would refer to his Enfield as a “gun”) and his “papers” in an explosion. Yet other papers survived in an inner pocket, and I’m fairly (not totally) sure ID tags were used in the Royal Army by 1918. What about his equipment belt and harness? Also lost in the explosion, despite the fact that his uniform is in good shape, without obvious tears or stains one might expect after living through an explosion that tossed you into the air. Dropping your rifle and having your helmet blown off as you fly through the air is plausible, but if Alistair had pulled out his equipment belt and canteen that would’ve added to his appearance. Maybe, on second thought, a bit too much. There’s the issue of ambiguity required to keep a necessary conclusion at bay until the proper moment, after all.
So, enough authenticity of appearance without too much? Judgment call over which any two reasonable writers could easily differ. But imagine a scene where Alistair pulls out his equipment belt, to which would’ve been attached a bayonet at least a foot and a half long.
BRANDON: Uh…hey, man, a knife that big is illegal in California.
ALISTAIR: (offhand) It’s not a knife, mate, it’s a bayonet.
BRANDON: (puzzled) Bayonet?
ALISTAIR: You’ve not been in the Army, then?
ALISTAIR: (patiently) It goes on the end of your rifle. Very handy for keeping unfriendly blokes at a distance.
BRANDON: Well, it’s still illegal in California.
Or something like that.
I will say, and here comes a real spoiler, that the scene where the filmmaker, Poppy, reveals her sexual orientation to Alistair struck a false note with me. A provincial middle-class Englishman like Alistair might not have any idea what a lesbian is, and for Alistair to simply take it in stride was the moment where I thought, here’s where the writers reveal Alistair is a fraud, or for Poppy to think, wait, why didn’t he react differently? Or perhaps I’m the provincial; after all, there are indications that male homosexuality was not unknown in England at that time, even if it was persecuted and frowned upon. The question should also be asked, how much did this scene further the story? As far as I can see, all it did was create a bond between Alistair and Poppy, of two lonely people who have both experienced the loss of those they loved. Maybe that was all it needed to do, but it seems there was far more potential in the scene than ended up on screen.
The “handwavium” required to explain Alistair’s presence and SPOILER ALERT! to return him to his own time I found charmingly naïve, and yet, again, given the probable budget constraints, oddly effective. The gorgeous female scientist was a nice contrast to the usual scifi trope of a wild-haired middle-aged man no one listens to. Her being from Denmark was interesting; people forget that Copenhagen was once home to Neils Bohr, a pioneering nuclear physicist. But her accent? Sounded more French than Danish to me. The distortion effect in the air was the most convincing item in the film’s meager special effects arsenal. I also found the “magic laptop” the scientist used to track the wandering wormholes an interesting idea. Hey, it’s a laptop, surely there’s an app to track wormholes, I mean, why not? And the three little balls? Effective simply because they were so cheesy. You can’t hire Industrial Light & Magic on a shoestring budget, now can you? And who knows what a time machine would look like, anyway?
The only other major point I would raise regards the scene where Alistair figures out the wormhole is traveling “east” instead of “west.” The scene was in the sense of the hero gathering his forces for one last throw of the dice, the “final confrontation” with the forces arrayed against him, if you will. We learn Alistair was a journalist before the war, so the idea that he can ask the right questions and put together a coherent story isn’t too surprising. But how did a person from 1918 figure something out that the modern-day physicist overlooks? That needed a little more from Alistair’s character than I think the story to that point established he could give, and probably no more than a few lines of dialog would have been enough to plug the hole. The scene with Alistair playing football with the little kid could maybe have been used for this. Something on the order of the following:
POPPY: Wow, you really know where the ball’s going to be.
ALISTAIR: Oh, I can always see the direction things are going.
The ending: MAJOR SPOILER ALERT. I thought the ending was absolutely fabulous, ending on a fascinating question rather than any sort of certainty. Poppy gives Alistair a GoPro to record his experience. Alistair promises to come to America and bury the GoPro under his squirrel trap. When Poppy strikes something in the spot where Alistair left his squirrel trap, she looks up with the most incredulous look of surprise. Then, FADE TO BLACK. We don’t know for sure what’s there, but something is there, and what story do we choose to tell ourselves about it? Wonderfully ambiguous!
To me, though, the ending raised another question.
Put yourself in Alistair’s position. What if you really did travel forward in time and then backwards? You’ve been in the future for 6 weeks or so. You have an email account and a cell phone. If you kept your eyes and ears open you could have learned a lot about history, and you have a major incentive to be curious, after all. When you get back to your own time, though, first you’re on a live battlefield, unarmed and unequipped, since you’ve returned to where you started from. You have to survive that, and the following six months of the war. Only then do you arrive at the rest of your life.
So my question is: what do you do with your life after the war? When you know a lot about what the future brings?
To put it mundanely: What do you say when your wife asks you, with great asperity, who this Poppy person you keep dreaming about might be?
It almost begs for a sequel, in my mind, with a logline something like “How do you live in the past when you’ve been to the future and returned?” Imagine explaining that in 1918! “Ah, you daft bugger, go on with your silly tales. Who do you think you are? H.G. Wells?”
Who was still alive in 1918…