Things I know about this movie before watching it.
– It’s a low-budget ($7,000!) indie film.
-It’s about time travel, and apparently super complex. Of course, people told me Inception was hard to follow and mind-blowing and it wasn’t. So maybe this movie is deceptively easy to follow but just has a reputation.
Post-watch note: this movie was so weird that I’m not sure it’s possible to give spoilers. In fact, I’m not going to talk about the plot much in this review at all.
The movie opens with four inventor-slash-engineer guys talking about how they’re going to invent something super awesome with good real-world applications. There are implications that they’ve kind of been screwed out of profits before. This is further shown by the fact that they have to do things like cannibalize their own cars and refrigerators for parts.
It’s the first rule of writing: show, don’t tell. If we just have a character whining about never being able to afford anything, there’s no way to know how poor that person actually is. My problem with this movie, however, is that while they do a great job of never telling when showing is a better option, what is shown is confusing and unexplained. Or, as I was ranting to the coworker who first recommended this movie to me, Primer doesn’t seem to care whether I’m watching it.
There’s an appeal in this sort of storytelling, where we don’t get unrealistic character introductions and exposition. It feels closer to real life and, when done right, does a good job immersing the reader into the story. The whole movie goes by this philosophy and I get the genuine appeal of it, but I feel like there’s something more to it that the creator didn’t quite understand.
See, there are two ways to understand the events in a story. The first is to experience it yourself and the second is to have it told to you. One of the goals of immersive storytelling is to make the latter feel like the former. But actually making a story so real that it feels like the reader has experienced it is impossible, even if you get everything right. First of all, the process of telling a story- whether it’s told orally or written down or presented in film- doesn’t just involve the storyteller. There are always two parties involved in media. The writers can give their clearest message to the reader, but readers always interpret things their own way. This is one of the reasons that re-reading a book is a new and worthy experience- you’re always a new person bringing their own unique experiences and knowledge to the table, so the story is always going to change.
But beyond that, the idea of experiencing a story is a false one. Stories aren’t things that happen. They are merely ways of selectively choosing events to tell. Humans tell stories because linking together cause-and-effect experiences is the easiest way for our brains to interpret what is important, but in everyday life things don’t just happen in one coherent narrative. Life is messy. Life is nonsensical. Even a messy and nonsensical story isn’t lifelike because at the end of the day, we weave our experiences all into some semblance of meaning in order to better understand our lives.
All that is to say that when you tell a story too realistically, what you get is just a list of things that happened. Nobody wants that raw data, at least not for the sake of entertainment or emotionalization. So the essential task in telling any story from a non-fictional biography to a whimsical fairy tale is choosing how to take what does happen in-story and make it into something meaningful. Ultimately, that’s all language is, really. Our words are simply metaphors for real things and the stories we tell are all metaphors for what life is like. The struggle of a writer is in trying to imagine how life is or how life could be and channel that into something digestible for their readers.
This is where I feel Primer fails. It isn’t just a story where you need a minute to figure things out. It’s a story where you need several rewatches, charts, summaries and essays to grasp the plot enough to get some semblance of enjoyment out of it. Some people like that, but I don’t. Some movies, like Fight Club (which I had the pleasure of watching with somebody who hadn’t yet been spoiled to the twist), are better with a rewatch or supplemental narrative. Almost all literature can benefit with some extra details that didn’t make it into the text. But this movie is where I draw the line.
Alright, I’m getting ahead of myself, but something something insert time travel joke.
The story hasn’t gotten confusing yet because we can gather most of the details of what’s going on so far. Two of the inventors invent a box that seems to reduce the mass of objects placed inside. A lot of incomprehensible technobabble later we find that this is because the stuff in the box is constantly going backward and forward in time so that not all of the mass is in the same time at once. This is a neat way to show a discovery of time travel! One thing I can say for this movie is that the creator obviously loved the project and he put a lot of thought into almost everything.
The inventors expand the box so that it fits a whole storage facility room and the blonde one, Abe, goes inside it. Abe spends a lot of time making sure that his partner, the brunette whose name I never caught, knows how exactly to use the time box so that he doesn’t mess up causality. For instance, the box has to be left on so that the original copy of the time traveler can use it to go back in time in the first place. That’s simple time travel movie causality, so I honestly felt like Brunette Guy was being a little dense. Like, you’re an engineer who has probably at least thought about time travel since finding out it’s a possibility, so how do you require a whole explanation about causality? What’s more, this is the only part where the movie stops to explain itself to its audience, so this sequence sticks out more than it would in a more straightforward narrative.
Brunette Guy and Abe spend a few days in the same routine. They go to a hotel in a town several miles away, spend the day doing nothing important and then look up stock market stats for the day. Then they go back to their hometown, go back to that morning, work some stock market magic and make some good money. This seems like a really basic way to make money via time travel. Once more, it serves as an easy way to reassure the audience that these characters don’t want to mess with causality.
And then Brunette Guy gets curious and decides to do it anyway. Apparently he’s trying to figure out a way to punch his boss or something petty like that, then erase the event so that he doesn’t feel the consequences. This marks the stupidest reason for anybody to risk breaking the universe by causing a time paradox in any story I’ve ever heard. Steven Universe making a four-person one-man band comes close, but it gets the excuse of being an accident caused by a young kid who isn’t supposed to be a brilliant inventor.
Anyway, in Primer nothing bad happens from breaking causality, even though cause and effect is the most basic law of our existence. Without causality, we wouldn’t have the scientific method, but it goes further than that. Human beings are built on causality. We expect it. We tell stories about how Zeus sends down lightning bolts because we see an effect and know that there must be some cause because that is how logic works. The brown-haired guy in Primer breaks logic on purpose for basically no reason and there are zero initial effects, at least as far as I could see from browsing webpages full of analysis on this movie.
One of the things I said I liked about Primer was that it’s a labor of love where the writer and most of the characters seem to think through every possibility and every implication, but this is a glaring mistake in the plot. For a movie that feels like it explores everything, it doesn’t seem to care at all about causality.
This is where the plot gets downright unfollowable. Even though the movie spent a large percentage of its short run time explaining how time travel works so you can’t go back in time to before the machine was made, somebody apparently did and the guys can’t figure out whom. Brunette Guy says some stuff about stopping some guy with a shotgun and we see like ten seconds of that scene way later in the movie but it’s hard to piece together when happens what. Then said brown-trussed protagonist goes back to the first day that Abe used the machine and apparently this whole time he’s been a copy of himself from the future? But it’s never properly revealed why he did that or where the alpha-timeline version of him is this whole time.
This is stuff I didn’t know until doing further research, but the villains of this piece are supposed to be copies of the heroes who went back in time. Why did they do that? Nobody knows! How did they do it? Well I don’t have a masters’ in decoding technobabble about overcoming causal restraints so I couldn’t tell you. The regular timeline versions (I think?) of Abe and Brunette are all scared and decide to maybe run away or something? Then a different Brunette Guy (maybe?) is shown trying to make a bigger time machine for some unexplored reason. That’s the end of the movie (?).
I’ve watched strange movies before and I would recommend several of them. For instance, Eraserhead is trippy because David Lynch uses such weird imagery and symbolism and the story slowly stops being a story and it may have been an allegory for childbirth in the first place. Něco z Alenky is weird because it uses second-person and disturbing stop-motion monster socks. Donnie Darko does a weird time loopy thing which only makes sense once you realize most of the movie never happened. But this movie didn’t just stop making sense. It felt like I was coming into a film halfway through and they forgot to tell me who anybody was or why they did things. I don’t feel like somebody outsmarted me or like I just saw some clever trick. I just feel like the guy who made this movie decided to make it incomprehensible on purpose. Everyone uses pronouns instead of names and the “villain” is never properly defined or shown inside of the movie proper and nobody has any reason for doing any of the things they do. Hey, we discovered time travel. How about we just decide to fuck around with causality? That’ll be fun! Hey, the antagonists are ourselves from the future. Why? Whatever!
All in all, I get the appeal of this overly scientific, layers-deep method of storytelling, but it doesn’t appeal to the reader or the writer in me. I can truly say that I don’t get the plot, but the closer I get to understanding it via research or even extended conversations with people who do get it, the more I start to wonder why I’m putting so much effort into this. I hate to say I disliked a movie on my list of movies I wanted to watch, but I think that’s going to have to be my conclusion here.