It’s time to travel in time. Last year, I was a little miffed about the way that Looper (2012) played fast and loose with the physics of time travel to create dramatic tension. [Review.] In order to prepare for Shane Carruth‘s well received 2013 film Upstream Color (2013), I felt the need to see his first outing Primer (2004) about two guys who accidentally discover time travel. It’s pretty confusing, but it certainly feels like Carruth–who interestingly got a “special thanks” credit for Looper–takes the subject seriously. That sounds petty. “It’s time travel, man, it isn’t real, don’t over-think it?” But these big fantasies, like time travel, unaided flight, mind-reading, etc., have deep implications for the reality of being human. The reason we want these powers is psychological. That’s why I liked the shows Heroes (2006-10), Misfits (2009-), Chronicle (2012), and now Primer, because they set the stage for a real and interesting conversation.
Aaron (Shane Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) are two members of an inventors team with Robert (Casey Gooden) and Philip (Anand Upadhyaya). Each guy gets a turn and the others work on that invention. This isn’t science camp, they’re trying to create valuable patents and sell them. Clearly, though, Aaron and Abe are the stars of this particular show and they decide to work on their own project without the others. This device they create is interesting and probably valuable, but they aren’t sure how. They can get it running, remove its energy source, and yet it somehow keeps running. After messing around with it, Abe realizes that inside of the device, an object enters a kind of stasis and emerges years in the future. Applying the underlying mathematics, Abe further discovers that it can be used to go backwards in time. Thus, building a larger device, able to fit a human, Abe sends himself one day backwards in time. But there are some rules that need to be applied.
This is Carruth’s movie. He wrote, directed, produced, edited, did the score (which isn’t too bad), and designed the production and sound. It’s rough, no question. Shot on Super 16, the earliest scenes look rather like a group of friends taking themselves too seriously. Adding to the effect is their location, the Dallas area around where I grew up, with the plain, cheap-looking brick and drab office parks I know so well. Cleaner film and cleaner dialogue might have made this seem homey and familiar, but the busy, jargon-filled dialogue and rough camera focus seemed amateurish. But story will out and very soon after Abe finds out what he’s got, I was hooked. The rest of the movie is essentially Abe and Aaron figuring out what to do with this device and then unraveling its mystery.
Expect little explanation and enjoy. Available on Netflix.