Primer is not your average time travel movie.
It’s so confusing, so convoluted, it virtually requires a second (or even third) viewing to simply decipher it, much less enjoy it. That being said, I also found it fascinating, and it filled my head with questions and ideas for weeks after I first saw it. You should go out and rent it.
But I say again: it’s not your average time travel movie.
Most movies involving time travel are not really about time travel itself; rather, time travel is a nifty plot device used to address some greater issue of fate or destiny. Just think about it: in most time travel movies, the time device is already invented and perfected, and time travel itself is a breeze — an instantaneous push of a button away, and the mechanics of time travel are simple and straightforward. Sure, there are some mentions of temporal or causal paradoxes, but in the end the real focus of the movie — its eventual narrative purpose — is to establish some grander notion of fate or causality, such as
- all important events are pre-destined and cannot be changed in any meaningful way: think Terminator 1 and 3, or 12 Monkeys; or
- all important events should not be changed in any meaningful way, as alterations tend make things ever worse: think Back to the Future 1 and 2, or The Butterfly Effect, or Running Against Time.
In Primer, however, doesn’t play by those rules.
In it, the protagonists, two engineers called Abe and Aaron, discover time travel entirely by accident, a by-product of their otherwise unsuccessful attempt a building a room-temperature superconductor in their garage. Their time machine isn’t glamorous: it’s neither an ornate brass-and-crystal armchair nor hot-wired into a DeLorean, but rather is an uncomfortable smallish box filled with argon and built of metal and PVC piping.
Moreover, the mechanics of time travel in Primer isn’t glamorous either: you don’t simply pick a date and zap instantaneously to it; rather, you can only back in time, only to the point at which the time machine was first activated, and — and this is the kicker — you have to wait for the time to “unpass.”
That is, if you wanted to go back in time to, say, six hours ago, you’d first have to make sure you actually thought beforehand to power up the time machine six hours previously and, assuming you did that, you’d then have to crawl into the little time machine box and sit in that cramped little thing and wait for those six hours to “rewind” — and assuming to missed the six hour mark, you’d need to stay in the box an additional six hours just to get out of it at the point at which you entered it. …And of course, if you actually did do everything right, then (oddly enough), the minute you first power up the time machine you’d actually meet your six-hour future self immediately exiting the machine, which explains why the guys in the movie actually set a timer-delay on their time machines.
After my first viewing, so was I, but maybe this will help.
Similarly, whereas most time travel movies usually follow the perspective of the protagonists during their journeys through time — which means that the audience has as much knowledge of events as the main characters themselves — Primer does not do this. It instead shifts timelines repeatedly and without warning, and the effect is confusing and unsettling. For example, as the scene in which Abe explains the functionality of the box to Aaron, it becomes apparent to the audience that the Abe who is talking is actually from the future, and that the events unfolding are in fact from a separate timeline, one from Abe’s past. Even better, later in the movie, we find that the entire course of events has shifted into a new timeline — the past of a third character — after which we come to realize that the original “explaining the functionality” scene was actually from a third timeline, one in which Aaron, supposed to be from Abe’s past, is in fact from the future, so that the entire scene is actually from Aaron’s past.
After my second viewing, so was I, but maybe this will help (although it will does contain lots of spoilers!).
And when all is said and done, when the movie finally ends, it makes no grand point about fate or destiny, nor any assertions about the sanctity or unchangeability of the past. In fact, by the end of the movie, Abe and Aaron take away entirely different perspectives on the past and their responsibility to it, leaving the audience to decide who is right and who is wrong… and who is who, too, since the final timeline of the movie is populated by (at least) two Abes and three Aarons.
After my third viewing, so was I, but… well… I got used to being confused.
In any event: Primer is an unexpectedly good science fiction movie that skimps on neither the science nor the fiction, and I recommend it if you’ve got time to spare.
No pun intended.