Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Movie Review: Primer (2004)

Movies about time travel never get old because nobody can really agree on what the consequences of the practice can be. If you travel back in time and mess with your own past, will you wink out of existence, or will the whole process sort itself out? Everybody's got their own theory, but the fun is in seeing what the director of any given film thinks would happen. Every time, it's a new experience for the audience, or at least it should be. "Primer" (dir. Shane Carruth, 2004) is, if nothing else, a new experience.

In fact, very little in "Primer" is like any other film I've ever seen. Shane Carruth wrote, produced and starred in the film, which stars a group of hardcore engineering geeks who work practically 24/7: in addition to their corporate day jobs they assemble and sell computer boards at night and engage in their own scientific experiments in a garage during what little free time they have remaining. The dialogue can at time be maddening because all four of them talk over each other constantly, like most real geeks do. Also very little of it makes any sense to laypersons and none of it is explained. Like the dialogue in "Altered States", the point is that these people are very smart and very excited. You're not supposed to follow it.

Two of them accidentally cause a reaction that is impossible according to known science, and stealthily cut their friends out of the loop: whatever they've got it's clearly something big. It turns out that they've invented a time machine that is a royal pain in the ass to use but clearly works. Their first instinct is, of course, to get rich with it by gaining advance knowledge of the stock market. This pays off handsomely, but while high on their accomplishments they begin to think of other possible uses for the machine, and a ten-foot neon sign reading "HUBRIS" should pop into your mind.

At this point the entire narrative goes to hell, which is entirely intentional. Whatever it is that they decide to do with the machine doesn't work out right. Suddenly there are at least two or three duplicates of our heroes running around at any given time trying to accomplish several agendas. It's not clear what happened "first" because it's all happening at once. All that's clear is that they've crossed a line and there's no going back.

I won't lie, "Primer" hurt my head. It's a good thing the film is only 77 minutes long because I was praying for it to end right about when it did. It's exhausting to keep up with, and while I could list the various plot elements I couldn't begin to explain how they tie together. This is obviously the intended effect: the protagonists barely have any idea what's going on, so how the heck are we supposed to know? The chaos of time travel is made very, very clear. The downside to this is that there are several dramatic moments that should have more emotional impact than they do, except that it's so hard to sort out where in what timeline we are and what anybody's doing that the cumulative effect is simply confusion.

And yet I'm extremely grateful to have seen "Primer". Despite the obvious non-budget, the ingenuity of the filmmaking almost qualifies as its own special effect. In my favorite shot our scientists are running an experiment on a weeble toy stuck in a vacuum sealed box with a camera  (because it would be unsafe to look inside directly). The box begins shaking violently and our heroes circle it in fear, watching to see the results of their trial. Meanwhile only we the viewers can see the video feed from the camera inside, which gets more and more alarming. The mounting dread of this shot is worth seeing the entire movie for. That and the ingenuity of their "time machine", seemingly constructed of plastic film and duct tape.

With any movie, the audience needs to know what they're signing up for before going in. "Primer" is a mindscrew from top to bottom, and to enjoy it you've got to work for it. But if you're willing to play along the result is rewarding: Perhaps the most incredible attempt to take a hard sci-fi approach to time travel in a film I've ever seen. If "Primer" were a book it would probably be less frustrating, but I don't know if it could have been bettered. It's as terrifying as it is incoherent, just the way it ought to be.

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