Since we just finished up The Time Machine, I figured for my review I would take a look at what has to be the most confusing, complex, existential-crisis-inducing time travel movie of all time.
That’s right, I’m reviewing Primer.
Primer was the 2004 directorial debut of Shane Carruth, who by the looks of Upstream Color just likes to create things that make little sense. Primer is also available on Netflix Instant Watch, and it’s only 77 minutes. I recommend everyone watch it, because it will blow your mind. Primer was made on, like, $7,000 (add it to the running list of things that cost way less than your Berkeley education). The budget was so low that Carruth stars as one of the main characters.
is totally cheesy and not at all what the movie is like; the movie is a very slow burn, so to speak. It’s quiet and understated, which leaves the plot all the more unexpected.
This is easily the most confusing movie I’ve ever seen. My friends talked me into watching it last year. It was beyond crazy cool, no doubt. It
makes you forces you to think. But there is a point where everybody — everybody — gets hopelessly lost, and for the rest of the movie you’re scrambling and grasping at straws. Afterward I was just sitting there, basically in the fetal position, for like an hour looking up plot analysis online.
And now I just rewatched it. But enough of that; let’s get to the nitty-gritty.
Primer follows two (quite Biblical) young men, Abe and Aaron, who accidentally discover a machine that causes time travel. Intrepid young explorers, they decide to send themselves back in time, even though they don’t fully understand the mechanism behind time travel. It starts out innocuously enough: they hope to make money off the stock market.
But a few major plot twists lead to the creation of radical, alternate time lines — that is, Abe and Aaron change the course of history, of which both were initially cautious. Abe decides he’s had enough, but it’s too late. At the end, the viewer’s brain is slapped backwards and forwards, and he is left staring open-mouthed and unblinking as the credits roll.
There’s some similarity here to what H.G. Wells does in The Time Machine — namely, that neither Carruth nor Wells shies away from discussing actual science. I found this to be a welcome departure from Frankenstein, which is a great science-fiction novel that contains zero actual science. The Time Machine opens with a serious discussion of the four dimensions between the Time Traveller and his companions. Similarly, Primer is rife with discussions of physics, technology, mathematics, and paradoxes. In fact, in a stroke of utter pretension, Carruth chose to not simplify any of the high-level dialogue for the sake of the audience; he didn’t want its legitimacy to get lost in translation.
I think that, as the first of its kind, The Time Machine is a harbinger of sorts. It is rudimentary in how it explores time travel, because it has nothing to which it can refer back, nothing to build upon. There’s now an entire niche of science fiction devoted to time travel, ranging from the hilarious — Back to the Future, anyone? — to the noir — Looper — to the technical — Primer.
Thus, The Time Machine makes no mention of what is now an accepted aspect of time travel — the creation of alternate timelines, should one disrupt the course of history. The Time Traveller basically stomps through the future with little care for how his actions affect any timeline — current or alternate. He introduces fire to the Eloi, who have never seen such a thing; he kills off tons of Morlocks; he catalyzes a huge forest fire that severely damages the ecosystem of the Upper-world. For all his enthusiasm at using the scientific method to draw impartial conclusions, the Time Traveller sucks at preserving the future in stasis. For all we know, his actions in 802,701 A.D. lead to the far future of crabs and the red sun; maybe all that only came into being upon his creating an alternate timeline.
Meanwhile, Primer‘s protagonists (well, one, at least) are extremely cautious of ensuring that they don’t alter the course of history. When one does, calamity ensues.
Obviously, Primer takes on this tradition of time travel — even the accidental discovery of time travel — and exaggerates it to extreme and disturbing effect. Primer does not create one alternate timeline, like BTTF Part 2, that can be quickly corrected. Primer essentially presents — not explores, just presents — what would happen if too many alternate timelines were created and not closed off. To that extent, it also grazes the surface of what identity is to an individual — how an individual can retain his identity if he’s simply a double of someone else.
The Time Machine was concerned with the degradation of society; Primer is concerned with the degradation of one man and his better judgment. The Time Machine is the first work to deal with a time machine, and as such it only presents one that is not abused; Primer details what would stem from the creation of multiple machines for multiple people. Interestingly, though, both works eventually end with the mysterious disappearance of the original time travelers.
But now I’d like to pose one big problem I have with both The Time Machine and Primer: the fact that these people only move along one dimension. The Time Traveller himself asserts that his original conception for a machine was one “that shall travel indifferently in any direction of Space and Time as the driver determines” (5). But when he actually gets to travelling, he only moves along one dimension (Time). It seems that, by the Time Traveller’s logic, time and space are intertwined; one cannot hurtle along in space without being subjected to time, and vice versa. Yet his Time Machine remains in one spot as space moves about him.
Primer attempts to address and solve this issue. And I’m probably going to do a very bad job at attempting to explain this, because this movie still confuses me. But anyway, the time machines that Abe and Aaron create are essentially cut off from normal space and time restrictions. That is, they create an alternate time channel unto itself, that cuts them off from the bounds of normal time. Thus, I can assume that they are similarly unbound from normal space restrictions.
Anyway, if anyone does indeed decide to watch Primer (DO IT), here are a few websites that can help you digest it afterward.
This one just explains the plot: http://qntm.org/primer
This one explains the mechanisms behind the time travel: http://qntm.org/coffin