A Primer in Time Travel

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.

The trailer

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.

h/t Wikipedia

h/t Wikipedia

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

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3 Responses to A Primer in Time Travel

  1. fearthefin says:

    I just realized in the last day or so a way that I could deepen this analysis: taking a look at how identity is depicted in Primer and The Time Machine.

    As mentioned above, Primer alludes to the question of how one preserves identity and individuality in a world in which he is but a double, a facsimile. For all intents and purposes, the three Aarons at the end of the movie are the same person just duplicated over and over; yet each one has slightly different characteristics and, even, personalities. Hooded Aaron, for instance, seems the most sinister and greedy. Yet none of them should be able to exist simultaneously; that is, it’s only through human manipulation that they come to fruition, and they can’t all live together in symbiosis without seriously wreaking havoc. This idea harkens back to Frankenstein: a monster created by man’s manipulation who cannot live harmoniously in the world of his creator.

    I thought this question of identity was one that could be expanded to The Time Machine, specifically to the (nearer) future that the Traveller visits. The Elois and the Morlocks are, by and large, anonymous beings. Only one (Weena) manages to separate herself from the mass of her species to gain personality traits; and this too, like the duplicates in Primer, is because of man intercedes. (Even then, however, she is less a well-rounded person than a mere collection of traits. She is a mere transposition of the kindness and companionship for which longs the Traveller.) The Eloi are all of the same mold and blend together seamlessly; they all lack any differentiating characteristics. Similarly, the Morlocks are but duplicates of one quirk. And in the broadest sense, these two species are simply conceits for the chiaroscuro of sorts that existed during Wells’ time — the dichotomy between the working masses and the idle rich.

    • ahhcoffee says:

      Your additional thoughts on the idea of identity are very interesting to me. I haven’t seen Primer, but your analysis on the many versions of Aaron helped me complete a thought about duplication that I was musing over in The Time Machine for a while. Throughout the novel, the reader is aware that the Elois and Morlocks are two sides of society—the Haves and the Have Nots; essentially, they are simply different facets of our social classes. This is why your thoughts on why the many Aarons that were slightly different not being able to coexist because “it’s only through human manipulation that they come to fruition, and they can’t all live together in symbiosis without seriously wreaking havoc” had a profound impact on me–this seems exactly like the Eloi and the Morlocks! Instead of looking at one at a time, I suggest we look at the two at once and consider them “duplicates of quirks” (as you would say) from a single origin. They are produced because of present day’s manipulation of the working order, highlighting the horror in the juxtaposition of the cowishly docile Eloi and the beastly Morlocks. Perhaps this is why reading about the Eloi and Morlocks didn’t sit well with me—I was reading into the monstrosity of the two as they are “created by man’’s manipulation who cannot live harmoniously in the world of his creator.”

  2. kristy0715 says:

    This movie sounds really interesting and it looks like a film that I really want to look into! I think the comparison of this with The Time Machine is really interesting. I think its interesting how both endings of the stories focus on the main character’s inability to pull himself away from time traveling, despite the the dangers and risks of traveling through time. This is shown in the end as Hooded Aaron builds a new time machine the size of a warehouse. I liked how you pointed out about the possible consequences of the time traveler’s impact on the future. I thought it was interesting how Wells never really expanded on this idea: how the time traveler introducing fire to the Eloi and Morlocks could have negative consequences on both the ast and the future.

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