Today I’m gonna talk about a little movie with a big idea: Primer (2004).
This low-budget sci-fi deals with the old standard of time travel in an amazingly refreshing, realistic, and complex way. Staying true to the pattern of many historical scientific breakthroughs, within the movie the time travel is an accidental side-effect of what the engineers are actually trying to invent. Also grounded in reality is: how this machine is built, what it looks like, how it functions, and (as far as this non-engineer geek girl can tell) the tech-talk-filled conversations about it.
All well and good, and if you pay close attention you can even follow the plot this far. It takes about half an hour of this 1:17 length movie before the time travel even comes into play, and nearly as long again before the plot goes well and truly off the rails into the land of “What.” and “I’m so confused”. Seriously, I had to go read a plot summery online before I felt I could even attempt to follow the twists, much less understand what actually just happened in that last 20+/- minutes.
Despite that, I was still left with the impression that this was a brilliant movie overall. I love the concept of a reality-based time travel that doesn’t use paradoxes and worm holes and contrivance and exposition to try and explain away all the things the writers couldn’t be bothered to figure out. I love the use of un-watered-down tech talk, because I grew up around engineers and I know what their conversations are actually like. I love how they built the machine, how they stumbled onto the discover, and the rules they make for themselves using it. All of that comes off so refreshingly believable and realistic to me. This is a very grounded movie.
While I might have been confused and blindsided near the end, that had very little to do with the machines or in-movie theories of time travel, and all to do with trying to follow the actions and choices of the characters — and the storytelling choices of how and what to reveal when. Those are story problems, and really I don’t think the concept suffered at all because of them. Honestly, I’ll have to re-watch a few times to decide if the story problems are actual problems, or if it’s just so complex and tight that I couldn’t break into it on the first go. I suspect it’s the latter, and that more watching will reveal deeper layers upon layers upon clues.
Primer is kind of a reverse of the usual sci-fi time travel plot; typically, the concept and theory is sacrificed at the alter of the story the writer wants to tell. This isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but it gets frustrating to see the science part of sci-fi ignored or underdeveloped over and over. I watched this movie on the warning and recommendation that it is the most well-thought-out time travel put to film, and that because of that it would take several views of paying strict attention to even kinda-sorta start to understand it all. At the time, that sounded appealing to me. It still does, and it definitely lived up to both sides of that hype.
I’m not going to re-watch it right away, but this movie is definitely going to be kept around. I can see myself re-watching every once in a while, and breaking it out to show to especially engineer-type geeky friends to get their impressions and discussions. I’m particularly thinking of my brother-in-law for this, actually. And my brother. And probably my dad. Did I mention I come from a geeky sometimes-engineering-centric family?
This was a good movie. I’m still not sure how I feel about the ending, but I’m sure after a few more times I’ll start to form an opinion. Overall, it was a really great concept and it kept me interested. Well done, Shane Carruth. I’m glad you finished your film.