Let’s Do the Time Warp Again


“They took from their surroundings what was needed and made it something more.”

— voice-over narration from Primer

Many months ago, in notes I brainstormed on Shane Carruth’s Primer, I typed the following sentence: “And the world comes undone in my hands.”

I honestly have no recollection of the process that produced this thought. It is not, according to Google, a series of words that has ever appeared anywhere in that order before. And it’s certainly possible — likely even — that I’m completely botching my initial meaning ... assuming that the sentence wasn’t randomly written in an outburst of frustration. (You know: “All work and no play ... .”)

But the words seem to express an important theme in the movie: Even though I have great power, I lack control — and the world comes undone in my hands.

There. I have written something about Primer that does not mention time travel. And that’s impressive, because the entirety of Primer’s plot is time travel — what happens when two engineers accidentally build a time-travel machine, and how it complicates their existences exponentially. (It also multiplies their existences — literally.)

Not since Pi has a low-budget feature-filmmaking debut been so intellectually invigorating, viscerally satisfying, and vividly imagined and realized — intelligent and interested in ideas while also being fun to watch.

Both movies’ subject matter is in direct opposition to their manner. Pi was a crazy-ass thriller about math, something that took the everyday — stock prices, cream being poured into coffee, leaves — and made them mystical and alien. Primer, on the other hand, is an austere rumination on something fantastic, rooted so deeply in the mundane that it seems plausible. Beyond that, it exists in a genre usually loaded with effects shots and races against the clock; it’s Back to the Future taken seriously.

Primer is therefore a much bigger movie than time travel would suggest, yet it’s also a tiny movie, one whose budget was so small ($7,000) that there are no special effects. The time machines look as if they were built in a garage. Which they were. The test subject? A Weeble.

Carruth plays Aaron, a corporate cog who in his spare time works with three friends in his garage to build a superconductor. They’re looking for “VC attention,” and they speak in what might as well be a foreign tongue for its intelligibility to the layperson.

The machine doesn’t work, exactly, but it does something. The Weeble seems to have become a protein factory nonpareil; in five days, it has produced a volume of the stuff that would normally take five years to create.

Abe (David Sullivan) figures it out first. It dawns on him that it did take five years to generate that much protein — in other words, that time is much different inside the machine than outside.

What they have built is a time machine, even though they never call it that.

It is charmingly crude. One does not enter, turn the dials to a specific date, and whir centuries into the future or past. If you’re going back in time, say, from this afternoon to this morning, you rent a hotel room to limit the chances of one of those nasty space-time paradoxes that almost got poor Marty McFly. Late in the afternoon, you enter the machine with an oxygen tank, set an alarm on a portable clock, and go to sleep. When you wake up, it’s morning again!

You might reasonably ask: What’s the point? Well, after your self-imposed hotel exile, you might find some stock prices, and when you wake up in the morning, you might buy some of the stock that did well that day.

If something bad happens — say, at a party — you might go back to before the event to try to set things right. And if you fail, you might try again.

“There was value in the thing. Clearly,” a voice-over tells the audience.

Aaron and Abe are careful. They buy stocks whose volume is so large that their purchases and sales won’t alter the market significantly. And then Aaron does something stupid.

The voice-over says: “As weeks became months, their enthusiasm became a slow realization that they were out of their depth.”

To say Primer is about time travel is to make at least two mistakes: It blurts out the plot conceit in a way that the movie steadfastly avoids, and it misstates that conceit. Primer is not about time travel; it uses time travel as a tool to explore relationship, trust, and power dynamics, and the dangers of toying with something without fully understanding its mechanics or implications.

The dialogue and acting are stylized, as one might imagine Mamet done by novice performers, and it’s a smart affectation: Divorcing the delivery from naturalism hides a lot of inexperience. The use of locations is similarly shrewd, and you’d never guess from the way it looks that Primer was financed with what passes for pocket change in the entertainment industry.

Still, there’s a homemade quality about everything in the movie, and that electrical-tape-and-plywood sensibility is perfectly attuned to the low-key, low-budget way the movie approaches its high-concept subject matter. The self-taught Carruth produced, wrote, directed, shot, edited, designed, starred in, and composed music for Primer. By the director’s account, just more than 80 minutes of footage were shot for the movie; 78 were used in the final cut.

The result is a film that’s so economical and compact that it is, in the end, impenetrable. I’ve watched Primer twice now, and the specifics of the plot were only marginally more clear the second time through. I doubt watching it five more times would clarify it. (If you want an attempt at plot explication, go here. Good luck.)

There’s confusion at every turn, as the audience struggles to keep up both with the characters (who know a whole lot more about engineering than most viewers do) and the filmmaker (who is intimately familiar with his story and all its particulars and who is trying to finish the damned thing for the least amount of money possible).

But the movie’s lack of clarity is one of its strengths and (I think) a deliberate narrative strategy. Even though Primer is a dense mess of story, the plot is curiously irrelevant. After one baffled viewing, I had the gist, and the details are less important than the bigger picture.

What Carruth is doing in Primer is using time travel as a metaphor for power, and how that power has a relentless tendency to corrupt, warp, destroy, degrade, and undermine — everything from relationships to handwriting. By making his film so impervious, he encourages viewers to focus on themes and prevents them from wasting too much time trying to figure out the particulars.

Or maybe he just didn’t have the money to film the scenes with all the connective tissue.

The only real trouble with Primer is that it supports both that praise and that criticism. The degree of difficulty feels intentional, but the movie also seems clipped and unfinished — as if Carruth patched it together out of available parts hoping somebody would give him a few thousand bucks to do it right. A critical moment in the movie related to Abe learning about Aaron’s fuck-up passes so quickly, and with so little emphasis, that only the most alert viewer will grasp its import.

Even so, there’s no denying that Primer is the work of a imposingly smart and able writer/director who’s so good that he can create something nearly unimaginable: an effective, thoughtful no-budget time-travel film.

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