When Tor.com published Daniel H. Wilson’s short story “The Nostalgist” in 2009, the author wasn’t yet a leading voice on robotics in fiction. Sure, the Carnegie Mellon Ph.D. had won a Rave Award from WIRED in 2006 for his book How To Survive A Robot Uprising, but his bestselling novel Robopocalypse was still a few years off. So when filmmaker Giacomo Cimini wanted to adapt Wilson’s story into a film, it wasn’t a big ask. After Wilson’s novel hit big, though—with Stephen Spielberg and Drew Goddard tapped to direct and write the movie adaptation—the writer had to take more time to think about it.

“I was just this Italian director living in London who wanted to adapt one of his short stories,” says Cimini. “But he said, ‘Write the script, and if I like it, then it’s yours.’” Cimini took that challenge, and earned Wilson’s approval. The resulting short film adaptation of “The Nostalgist” hit the film festival circuit in 2014, racking up awards in Palm Springs, Leeds, and Sapporo.

Set in a dystopian future, The Nostalgist centers on a grandfather-grandson relationship that isn’t as idyllic as it first appears: The bright and pristine landscape, heavy on steampunk nostalgia, covers up the bleak reality of the future. In Wilson’s story the facade of the virtual reality is more imminently apparent, but in Cimini’s film, the nostalgic fantasy projection obscures reality for a bit longer.

Those two visions of the world are divided by the pair of glasses the grandfather realizes need replacing at the beginning of the film. When Cimini began production years ago, the idea of a pair of goggles covering real life with an overlay of artifice was still a far-off concept. But with the introduction of consumer VR products like the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive, in addition to mixed-reality devices like the Microsoft Hololens, the central piece of technology in the story is becoming more science than fiction. “When we started discussing this with Daniel, there was always a worry that it would be too far-fetched,” says Cimini. “But while researching things like Magic Leap, we realized it’s not that far from the Immersion System here.”

The term “nostalgia” has become more loaded in recent years, as the internet continuously folds back on itself to marvel at its past achievements. But Wilson and Cimini’s story looks at nostalgia as a coping mechanism through a grandfather soothing his tortured psyche with a bygone past, whiling away in a broken but technologically advanced world. The film offers a glimpse at what various VR technologies may be able to achieve—and the potential future from which they may offer an escape.


The Internet Premiere of The Nostalgist, an Award-Winning Short