In the early 20th Century Dr Plonk, a famous scientist and inventor, calculates that the world will end in 101 years unless immediate action is taken. Though ridiculed for his beliefs, Plonk invents a time machine and visits the year 2007 with unexpected results.

3
Rolf's silent turn lacks fantasy.

It’s hard not to cheer writer-director Rolf De Heer as an Australian filmmaker who’s happy to take risks and work across genres. Following the success of Ten Canoes – filmed with an Aboriginal cast and indigenous-language script – the director has done a 180-degree turn to make Dr Plonk.

It’s a black and white, silent, time-travel comedy that has been shot on old film stock with a hand-cranked camera. Making his movie debut, street performer Nigel Lunghi – aka Mr Spin – is well suited to the role of Dr Plonk. He’s an irascible scientist and inventor who in 1907 discovers the world is going to end 101 years hence. But no-one believes him.

With the help of his dotty wife Mrs Plonk – played by Magda Szubanski – and bumbling assistant Paulus – played by Paul Blackwell – our loopy boffin builds a time machine to travel to 2007 so he can bring back evidence of impending doom.

De Heer recreates the silent-film look in often uncanny fashion. He uses in-camera tricks, static cinematography, wooden sets, plenty of slapstick and a dizzying musical score. The effect is charming and whimsical.

But De Heer forgets that almost all movies in 1907 were one or two reelers and the film suffers for repetition. With time travel and Australian history at his disposal, De Heer could’ve done much more with the story to justify feature length.

Broadening the scope would also have allowed for more visual invention. Silent movies were often much more fantastical than this, using such techniques as superimposition and colour tinting. De Heer could’ve had fun with that, and stayed within his low-budget limitations.

And while the 2007-set scenes in plasma-addicted suburbia are amusing, the movie could’ve gone further in holding us up to ridicule rather than going for a war-on-terror angle that feels contrived.

For its ingenuity and charm, I’m giving Dr Plonk three stars.