Monday Movie Musings: Primer (2004)

There are movies that you watch and they just pass by. Then there are those that sit with you and stew. That take multiple viewings to even follow the conversations, though you do understand the overarching plot of it all. Primer is one of the latter films.

Filmed on a budget of $5,000, Primer is a packed film that, while a lean hour and seventeen minutes long, easily feels like a two-hour movie. I've shown this film to dozens of people. I've garnered reactions from "You didn't tell me I was going to have to think." to "I don't know what happened. But it's cool."

Primer answers the question: "What would happen if garage engineers created a time machine?" The movie opens on a party, where four people are going back and forth about the project they're going to work on next. This is where you're introduced to the main principle of this movie: it respects you as a viewer. We have multiple people, talking over each other, but completely embroiled in their conversation. They know what they're talking about and they have no idea that there is an audience listening in. What follows is a story that discovers and knows its rules and expects you to internalize them and, when something odd happens, for you to understand why that is based off previous conversations.

One of my favorite examples of this is, while explaining how the time machine works, they show that they jump back and forth in a loop between A - B (before and after boxes), that they jump between them a certain amount of revolutions before settling in the past. Abe tells Aaron that when he first went back, he woke up early, was ready to get out, but trusted the math and got out of the box when his alarm went off. Later, when they both travel back in separate boxes, we see Abe get out and lean against the box, just fine. About a minute and a half later, Aaron comes out of the box. He collapses to the floor, coughing, obviously racked with pain.

Now, if you look at the previous explanation, you can figure out why there's a different in time and effect the box had on these men. What happened is that Abe trusted the math again and left on time. Aaron, however, got out of the box early. Because he was still on the back half of the loop, he got out later in the day, which took a higher toll on his body.

Graphic made by Tom-B

Graphic made by Tom-B

It's stuff like this that makes Primer stand out as a science fiction movie. It's about real people and what they will do with this sort of technology. Instead of trying to take over the world or destroy their enemies, they concern themselves with gaming the stock market or changing the way people view them in their communities.

Spoilery Definitive Time Line

One character ends up creating multiple timelines, as well as versions of himself, in an effort to become the hero of a party. The interesting part of this is that, when we're introduced to the party, we find that he's already successfully done it. Then it becomes about the effects of his tampering and realizing how far he's gone to ensure that things turn out exactly how they need to in order for him to pull off his heroic act, knowing full well that no one will get hurt. Again, this is a packed movie, full of thought-provoking science, as well as succinct character interactions. This is not a movie to be viewed once. This is a movie to be viewed dozens of times, to be deconstructed, spun around, and analyzed. Furthermore, the movie actually leaves a lot of the story to happen off-screen and let you put together the pieces. I've included a comprehensive timeline to the right, but it's spoilery as all get out, but it also breaks down what we see in the movie as well as what is implied by the events we do get to see.

If you love sci-fi, time travel, and movies that respect you and your time, you must watch Primer. Just remember, don't watch it once or twice. It took me three times to be able to follow the flow of conversations and know exactly who I was supposed to be listening to.

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Justin D. Herd

Justin D. Herd is a purveyor of the weird and strange. He occasionally squawks at friends and family, but does so only under the cover of night. Okay, that's not true. He squawks in full daylight. Drinking games have been built around his peculiarities, but the truth of it is this: he is a loving husband, with two wonderful dem--children. One growls at things he likes, including pretty women. The other has started to learn hand-eye coordination. Neither had made it to the tender age of three. From there, things will only get more interesting. He spends most of his writing time either at a coffee shop or sitting at one of his many desks around his house. Any other place makes it nearly impossible for him to write. He uses horror movies and rock music to help get the juices flowing. His favorite authors are Jeremy Robert Johnson, Alan Campbell, Terry Pratchett, Justin Cronin, and Patrick Rothfuss. He consumes most of his books through audiobooks, but still loves his personal library and getting lost in the printed word.