Shane Carruth, 2004

A couple of guys build a time machine in their garage. A convoluted puzzle movie ensues.

The detractors of this film say that it is baffling, impenetrable, amateurish. Its advocates call it gloriously baffling, brilliantly impenetrable, stylishly amateurish. My experience, I discovered, was typical: about halfway through I lost track of what was happening, and everything thereafter was so much sound and fury signifying not a whole hell of a lot. See, the movie is about these guys who invent a machine that can send you back in time to the point that it was turned on, provided you're willing to sit there in a small box for hours, breathing from an oxygen tank, while time flows backward at exactly the same rate that it flows forward. This means that they can go back and revise the timeline. The gimmick of the movie is that you think you're watching things happen for the first time but you're actually already on the ninth revision of the timeline. You have to piece together what must have happened in the previous eight as the two guys went back and tried to undo each other's changes, making many
duplicates of themselves along the way. This is pretty much impossible to follow the first time through. After the movie was over, I read a writeup of the timelines on Wikipedia and I still didn't get it. Then I read it again. And again. Then I went to sleep. Then I woke up and went to work and came home and read it again. Then I rewatched the movie in one window with the timeline writeup in another. And this time I was able to make sense of what I was seeing. I understood the plot. And then I said enh.

I mean, sure, points to the director for making a real movie on a $7000 budget. Points for managing to get a 78-minute movie out of 80 minutes of footage. (By necessity, Carruth had to adopt Ed Wood's attitude toward second takes. Out of focus? Nah, atmospheric!) Points for grounding a fantastical concept in the real world. Big points for the leadup to the revelation of what exactly these guys have built. But the main plot is complexity for the sake of complexity. In the end, it's just a puzzle movie. Mike D'Angelo, whose 88 for Primer was the reason I watched it, wrote five years earlier about the movie Go that it would have been his #1 film of 1999 "had it even managed to create the illusion of being about something" — yet I would argue that even Go had as much thematic weight as Primer. Primer's defenders say it's about greed and trust and whatnot, but you can make an equally compelling argument that Go is about the balance between the poor judgment of youth and the ability of the young to rebound from the consequences of their mistakes. And then you say c'mon and admit that both films are largely about their own mechanics. And that Go was funnier and had Sarah Polley in it.

I imagine that Carruth got a pretty good return on his $7000 investment. I hope William Sleator got a cut. Primer is highly reminiscent of The Green Futures of Tycho, Singularity, The Boy Who Reversed Himself, The Duplicate, and Strange Attractors — and those are only the ones I read before losing track of Sleator in the early 1990s. Hmmm. I see here in Wikipedia that he's since written ten more. One of them is called The Boxes. The one after that is called Rewind. Crikey, this bibliography is practically a Primer plot summary.

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