To quote Keanu Reeves: “Whoa.”
Primer is an odd little sci-fi film that came out in 2004. (And when I say “little,” I mean it was written, directed, produced, cast and scored by one guy–who also stars in it.) It’s about a couple of young entrepreneurs, Abe and Aaron, who are tinkering with electronics in a garage when they realise that their latest invention has an unexpected quirk. Simply put, it allows time travel. The two guys start using their machine to rewind each day and use their knowledge of the future to get rich off the stock market–always being very careful to avoid their past selves. But eventually they realise someone else has discovered their secret…and that’s when things get complicated.
I have always thought of myself as a pretty huge nerd. I wear it as a badge of pride, in fact. I read books about black holes for fun; I can recite the names of all the Valar in The Silmarillion; I care about stuff like the Oxford comma and British vs. American spelling (I hope you can tell which side I’m on there); and I have always loved brainy, hard science fiction that takes some effort to puzzle out. The Martian, Interstellar, Moon, Inception…all of those would be in my Top 10 list of movies if I could actually narrow down my favourites to just 10.
But it’s finally happened. I have found the movie that is too nerdy for me.
Time travel has always been one of the staple concepts of science fiction. It shows up in all kinds of movies, both good and bad. But as most writers have realised, time travel is also one of the most deep, complicated premises ever devised. Can one actually change the past, or is everything pre-ordained? Does changing the past create an alternate universe? Does knowing the future take away one’s free will? If you run into your past or future self, does it create a paradox that destroys the world, or can the two of you just hang out? Most movies that deal with time travel focus on one or two of these questions, and just conveniently ignore anything else that’s not important to the story. And of course, most movies throw anything resembling real-world science out the window as soon as they bring up time travel.
But this one doesn’t. This movie is the closest thing I’ve seen to a realistic portrayal of time travel. There are no alternate universes, no signs of “wormhole magic” as one character puts it, and no flashing lights or Deloreans. It even manages to make the time machine sound plausible–largely because the characters speak only in physics jargon and always sound like they know what they’re talking about, even if I don’t. And honestly, it’s…kind of terrifying. Without bringing up any of the usual time travel problems, like preventing one’s own birth or accidentally letting the Nazis win, it still manages to make interfering with the past seem like a very bad idea.
Technically, this movie falls under my “if it’s 10 years old, I can spoil it” rule, but I’m not going to spoil the ending. Mainly because I’m still not entirely sure I understand it. I don’t think it’s possible to understand this movie’s ending the first time through unless you’re unusually smart, and possibly have a background in physics and/or computer science. The timeline is incredibly intricate, a lot of important things happen off-screen, and, like I said, the dialogue is almost entirely made up of rapid-fire engineer talk. There are some helpful charts and graphs that can be found online explaining the whole thing, but just the fact that you need a graph to understand this movie speaks volumes. This movie is rated PG-13, but since there’s nary a hint of sexual content or violence, and only the mildest of language, I’m forced to conclude it received that rating just because the MPAA couldn’t figure out what the heck they were watching.
Personally, I think Primer could have tried a little harder to explain what was going on to viewers like me. But on the other hand, it’s kind of nice to see a movie that over-estimates its audience’s intelligence for once. Most movies these days are so committed to dumbing everything down and spelling everything out, that it makes me wonder: if more movies assumed their audiences were smart, would we actually become smarter?
There are some things about Primer that you don’t need a graph to understand. Underneath the confusing timeline and the crazy science, this is fundamentally the story of a friendship that goes bad because of a lack of trust. All of Abe and Aaron’s problems (and they do end up with a pile of them) can be traced back to their inability to trust each other with the technology they invented, even as they exploit it together. Greed is also a problem. Because their first instinct is to use the machine to get rich, they ignore its potential for more beneficial purposes until it’s too late. And in their pursuit of wealth and fame, they end up alienating everyone in their lives, including each other. It’s really a rather straightforward cautionary tale–if you ignore the timeline. Which you can’t. It’s still bugging me.
In a meta sense, the most amazing thing about this movie is how much it accomplishes with so little. It was made on a $7,000 budget. $7,000! You can barely get a decent used car for that money, let alone a decent set. The cast and crew is basically one guy with no film experience, and a few of his friends and family. It’s shot in about three locations, on a noticeably cheap camera. And it’s one of the most mind-blowing sci-fi movies I’ve ever seen. So let that be a lesson: if you’re an aspiring filmmaker, but you don’t have that much money or any big studio connections, you can still make art! You just have to be really, really smart about it.
All that to say: I don’t think I’m quite smart enough to fully understand Primer, at least not without watching it a few more times, but I sorta like being outsmarted once in a while. If you like your movies more straightforward, you probably won’t be a fan of this one. But if you’re a big enough nerd to be in its target audience, you won’t be content with just one viewing.