“If two sets of the same atoms exist in the same universe at the same time, where did the additional atoms come from? It can make you hungry, thinking about questions like that. ‘I haven't eaten since later this afternoon,’ one [character] complains.” -- Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times, October 29, 2004
Time travel can be sketchy dramatic territory. No matter how you go about things, something isn’t going to work out. Even a fairly tidy movie like Back to the Future becomes rife with paradoxes and impossible bullshit if you think about it for more than four seconds. Marty goes back in time and creates an alternate timeline where his parents are successful and happy, and when he comes back to this alternate world for the first time he sees his alternate self go back to the 1955 that he just left. But by the logic of the movie, this alternate Marty should run into the original Marty when he gets back to 1955. In the sequel, Marty returns to 1955 and sees himself, but there’s no alternate Marty to be found. We know the timeline didn’t loop because the changes in 1985 already happened--signified by the mall changing names from Twin Pines Mall to Lone Pine Mall--so what happened to that other Marty? Did he disappear? Did he have some other adventure that we never saw? Am I the only one who thinks about this shit?
Time travel is messy business. Screw one thing up in the past and it could butterfly effect into a massive shit storm of plot holes and nonsense later on. This kind of story isn’t impossible to make, it’s just hard. 2004’s Primer is a time travel movie about 40 times as complicated as Back to the Future that manages to avoid, or maybe embrace, all of the paradoxes and weirdness that come from stepping back in time. The result of Primer tackling time travel dead-on is a labyrinthine narrative that’s near impossible to decipher after just one viewing. Hell, even after several viewings, I still find myself needing a chart to navigate everything that goes down.
It seems that nobody told writer/director/editor/composer/actor/producer/co-cinematographer Shane Caruth that filmmaking tends to be a collaborative effort. Caruth was a software engineer before he quit his job and took the plunge into professional filmmaking. Cobbled together on a scant $7000 budget (and shot on film, amazingly enough), Caruth led a band of loose acquaintances and semi-professionals to produce Primer, and in a display of the kind of raw talent that makes your stomach turn, went on to open at Sundance and win the Grand Jury Prize. With its complex structure and refusal to slow down for the folks out there without physics degrees, the film went on to become something of a critical darling and a cult favorite.
The best way to watch Primer is to go into it completely uninitiated. For those who haven’t seen the movie, I’d urge you to go out and find yourself a copy before reading anymore about it (Update: It's embedded below). The way in which it slowly reveals itself is a treat to watch, and even though I guarantee that you will get absolutely lost on your first run through, the conservative hour and change running time means you don’t have much at stake in terms of time commitment. Of course, once it’s over you’ll probably want to turn around and watch the whole thing over again, but that’s really beside the point.
Primer has an inherent re-watchability. Even after seeing the film several times, and studying all of the graphs and charts that outline the various timelines and clones that weave throughout the story, I’m just now getting to the point where I think I understand… probably about 95% of what’s going on. Unlike movies like Fight Club or The Sixth Sense, where part of the fun is going back with the knowledge you learn from the ending to reveal new perspective on the rest of the movie, Primer forces you to go back and concentrate on the details laid throughout the movie to better understand its conclusion.
But for all of talk about Primer and its many complexities, the narrative only really starts scrambling your brain about half-way through. The bulk of the movie concentrates more on the creative process itself rather than mind-warping time paradoxes. It chronicles the pressures of building something new, of venturing into uncharted territory and all of the disappointments and set-backs that come along with it. The film starts with Aaron and Abe (Caruth and David Sullivan), two longtime friends who spend their nights in a garage twiddling away on a science project that doesn’t really seem to have much of a purpose. Despite an apparent lack of progress, the two work all hours of the night, pulling parts from cars and refrigerators and calling in favors from friends in an effort to stay within its tiny budget, all for the hope that maybe one day something will come out of their work: a patent, funding, recognition--it’s not unlike making a low-budget sci-fi movie in your garage, really. But, once something finally comes of their work, and they stumble upon the secret to time travel--“the most important thing that any living organism has ever witnessed,” as Abe puts it--they don’t seem too certain on just what the hell to do with it.
Their first instinct is to take advantage of the stock market, to gamble on sports like modern day Biff Tanens, but that’s almost too easy. Within a couple of days or, if they’re careful, weeks, they wouldn’t have to worry about money for the rest of their lives. So what does one do with the power to travel back in time when you don’t have to worry about money and your March Madness brackets are always perfect? Their minds quickly jump into dangerous territory. Punch their boss and then go back to stop themselves from doing it, build a machine that can take multiple people back at once, become a prescient super-hero. It’s a corruptive power that ultimately means the end of Abe and Aaron’s friendship--especially after they discover that they both have secretly been working against each other (and themselves) the whole movie.
While the most obvious overarching idea of Primer is that power and greed can corrupt and destroy a relationship, it’s likely the least interesting aspect of the movie. After all, that’s also the message in Envy, that Ben Stiller and Jack Black movie where the two guys invent a spray that makes dog shit disappear. What saves Primer from being a dry think piece is its wit, the way it tackles complex situations with baffled befuddlement. As smart as Abe and Aaron are, they’re clueless on how to handle some of the potentially hairy situations they find themselves in. At one point Aaron even admits: “I'm not going to pretend like I know anything, okay, about paradoxes… It must work itself out, somehow.”
To play it safe, they spend most of the movie squirreled away in a hotel room, hoping to avoid any situations that might rip a hole in the space-time continuum, making the life of a time traveler seem amusingly dull. They play scrabble, toss a football around, and worry if the front desk clerk thinks that they’re on a secret gay tryst. Still, problems arise: if you answer a cell phone at 2:00 on Friday, and go back in time and receive the exact same call, did your earlier self receive the call or did you inadvertently alter history just because you happen to be closer to a cell phone tower?
It’s the little details that make Primer fun to revisit, they’re details that no other filmmaker have really ever bothered to dwell on. Even though the subterfuge at the end of the movie, with all of the double crosses and evil, bearded clones running around, is what makes the movie so memorable, it’s scenes like Aaron and Abe trying to figure out if they would ever betray each other from the future, or them having mild panic attacks when they think a basketball game they’ve already seen is going to turn out differently that make Primer such a great mind bender.
And lucky you, just as I was about to publish this, I found that Shane Caruth uploaded Primer in its entirety to Google, so go ahead and watch it for free below:
Next Week: From a thinking man’s time travel movie to the cultural black hole that is the WWF. Wrestlemania V. TUNE IN, BROTHER.
More on this column: The Movie Rut