Just… what? Perhaps the most confusing time-travel movie I’ve ever seen, Primer seems like a good place to reboot this blog after the involuntary two-month hiatus. This film is so befuddling that even the Internet’s nerdiest nerd, Randall Munroe, couldn’t work it out. I won’t try and deconstruct the film, for the sake of my own brain, but I will mention just why the film is a lot more baffling than it needs to be and why this might just be its saving grace.
In Primer, we follow two friends, Aaron and Abe, who inadvertently build a time machine, to cut a long story short. In fact, they build several machines, called ‘boxes’, which can actually be folded up and put inside other boxes. You can see where this is going. In the beginning, they only use the boxes cautiously, with tremendous care not to mess up causality, but things inevitably go wrong. With a meagre explanation as to why, the friends travel back four days in time and try to put everything right by knocking out their past selves, resulting in not paradoxes but multiple versions of the same person, as well as multiple parallel timelines. Discombobulating? Not half!
Incredibly, this labyrinthine tale is told in just 74 minutes, and was filmed on a shoestring budget of $7,000. This means that there is no CGI and very few other special effects. Never does the same person appear onscreen twice at once, even in scenes where versions of the same character interact with each other. This makes it rather difficult to discern which version of Abe or Aaron is the original, and which is the new version. Most of the exposition is told by an ominous narrator, who turns out to be one dystopian version of Aaron talking to his original self. What’s so compelling about the film is that there does appear to be an unambiguous storyline, that is difficult to discern with the sparse clues that is given to the audience.
It seems like the complexity of the film was determined largely by the budget. With a longer running time, a few lashes of special effects and less cryptic exposition, this film could have been made a lot easier to understand; however, this would have taken away from the film’s appeal. For sci-fi nerds, this is an excellent solve-the-mystery type film that you can try and figure out to your heart’s content and one that finally takes time-travel seriously. It’s purposefully not aimed at the lowest common denominator, and will quite a lot of audience members alienated.
If you’ve read my review of The Godfather, you’ll know that I don’t enjoy being endlessly mystified when watching movies. I like to know that the work I put into trying to understand a movie will be rewarded by the time to get to the end of it. In general, if I don’t understand your movie by the end of it, then you haven’t done a very good job of explaining it. However, in the case of Primer, this seems to be its raison d’être, to addle the audience so that they might come back and watch a second time to work it out. It’s a risky strategy, but one that seems to have turned Primer into a cult classic. On the other hand, I believe that there should be a companion piece to this; a film that still takes time travel just as seriously, but is geared towards the lowest common denominator by not being so remarkably obtuse. A blockbuster, or a simply a film with a larger budget would do. After all, we don’t want to turn people off time travel do we?
At the end of the day, I have rather mixed feelings about Primer. From one perspective, it’s great that people are making films that fans can puzzle over for many hours afterwards, and also rather inspirational that they did it on such a small budget. On the other hand, I’m not really the puzzling type; I like to come away having at least some vague understanding of what I’ve just seen. To this extent, I think I personally films that aren’t so completely obtuse in their presentation. It isn’t entirely my cup of tea, but I’m glad it is out there as there are clearly people who enjoy the puzzle much more than myself.