Primer

I have said this before, but I think it must be quite hard to make a really good time travel movie.  I don’t just mean making a good movie that happens to have time travel in it, but to make a film that really deals with time travel very well.  My favorite such movie is Summer Time Machine Blues, for which there still isn’t anyone in my circle of acquaintances who I know who has seen without hearing about it from me first.

A better known film that has a fairly good reputation is Primer, which I finally got around to checking out a couple of days ago.  I didn’t know much about Primer except that it was reputed to be extremely complex and intricate in its time travel dealings, and my impression from what I’d read is that it was a bit of a downer of a movie.  It’s hard for me to say how much I agree with these assessments.  I’ve watched the movie from some place where I don’t have any internet access (where I still am as I write this) so I still haven’t done the inevitable internet research about the movie to find out if it’s really intricate and detailed or if it’s just that I don’t get big portions of it.

I actually watched the movie twice already.  Or rather, I watched it through once and I skimmed it a second time, especially taking time over the last third.  I have to admit that some plot points that mystified me the first time through made more sense on my second viewing, so who knows what secrets would be unlocked if I were to continue studying it.  That could be taken as a criticism – many would be put off by a story so impenetrable that you need to see it more than twice to even understand what is happening for much of the time.  But if the result was a really good time travel movie than I wouldn’t mind.

But at this point I’m tempted to think that there are just a bunch of things that don’t really make any sense.  Or maybe they make sense to the film maker, but he has offered no clues as to what is going on in his mind in anything that we see and hear in the movie itself.  So I write these comments freely admitting that perhaps the film is just smarter than I am – maybe when I get back to internet connectivity I will discover there is a beautifully logical and narratively brilliant explanation for everything that I’m currently confused by.  But now, limited as I am to my own faculties, my confusion stands.  For example (spoilers, such as they are)…

• …what is going on with the sudden appearance of Thomas Granger, showing up apparently drunk and menacing after what we all must assume is a trip through the box?  Is it simply meant to be an example of some mad event that precipitates Abe’s decision to use the fail-safe – an indication that somehow, things are just going to go wrong?  Is the intention that since the answer is unknowable to the protagonists, it’s unknowable to us as well?

• …who was that with Thomas Granger anyway?  There were two people in that car, both out of focus.  One of them looked like it could have been “another” Aaron.  Who was it, and what happened to him?

• …the first time we saw Abe share his discovery with Aaron, are we supposed to be seeing Aaron on a “repeat” visit?  Or is that genuinely the first time he’s experiencing it as well?  He doesn’t always wear his ear-bud, so he can’t always be listening to recorded versions of the conversations.

• …how is the multiple Aaron thing working anyway?  What is he talking about when he says a third Aaron shows up?  Which one is driven away at that point?  It’s implied that it’s not until the second (at least) time that Aaron experiences these events that he records them, so that means the second Aaron would not have gotten all the conversations correct.  So I guess there are changes from the first time around?  Maybe the “first day” that we saw between Aaron and Abe was supposed to be Aaron’s second time, when he was making the recordings?

• …but if that’s the case, than what happened to the first Aaron over those four days?  He couldn’t have been locked in the attic all that time, could he?

• …speaking of which, it’s implied that Aaron has relived that day of Rachel’s party over and over again – how is he doing that?  Is he just sending away each previous version of Aaron to go travel to the French-speaking world?  That would imply there were several, even dozens of them wandering the world out there, perhaps building their own version of the box.

• …why isn’t the future completely changed the first time Aaron uses the fail safe?  Actually, I don’t even understand the comment about the boxes being modular that seems to allow him to use the box over and over again over the same period of time.  But more to the point is once he goes back and knocks himself out, and since it seems he keeps doing that and never moves on into the future, how was Aaron there to work with Abe on everything that we saw over the four days of time travel?  Or why didn’t Aaron show up screaming, “Hey man!  Someone drugged me and locked he in the attic!  What the heck?!”

• …what exactly happened at Robert’s birthday party that Aaron was so concerned about?  He kept trying to go back and stop that idiot with the shotgun – but apparently he kept succeeding.  That’s what seems to have happened in the original version of the story that we saw (which again, might have been the second version, since they talk about a version where Aaron wasn’t even there).  In none of them did the guy shoot the gun.  He’s just trying to get the guy arrested?

• …and what went so wrong the last time that we saw it?  The creepy Aaron voice over says that he imagines he would have had it right if he’d had one more chance.  What was he really trying to achieve there?  I guess it was the last time he could try because now he had Abe from the future there with him, and Abe was determined to not allow the experiment to continue.

I feel like I also didn’t quite “get” the character drama that was going on.  It wasn’t until I saw the end that I even understood the idea that Abe might be trying to live vicariously through Aaron’s family, or that Aaron would even think such a thing.  I don’t mind not being obvious or slamming things down the audience’s throat, but a bit more of a clue to this would have been nice.  And what was Rachel’s relationship to everyone?  I’m imagining that Aaron with his apparent dissatisfaction at his family relationships (implied by his discussion at the fuel station about his life not turning out as he’d liked, and his frustration looking for their lost cat, but not by much of anything else) maybe was seeing Rachel as a potential sexual partner, and that was what he was really trying to achieve with his heroic stopping of the guy with the shot gun, but I don’t know if I’m completely making that up.

Aside from all of this, or perhaps because of it, Primer is an interesting piece of film making.  It was obviously done on an extremely low budget, and utilized an almost boring cinema verite approach.  I say boring in the sense that so much of the dialog just sounds like real people talking to each other (albeit, often about very complicated things), with all the tedium that that implies.  But somehow, it remains completely gripping and held onto my attention until the end, even as it began to lose my comprehension.

So that’s it, I guess.  When I get back, I guess we’ll see if any of my ideas coincide with anything that the collective wisdom of the internet has put forward.  I’m a bit nervous about it – it may turn out that I will be forced to love this movie.  Or it may be a bit like what I read about Inception after it came out – full of a lot of absolute nonsense that was more irritating than anything else.

ADDENDUM:  I’ve now had the chance to do just that, and revise and clarified my thinking.  You can read about this, at considerable length, here.

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