Primer (2004) — The most confusing time travel movie ever

“We know everything, okay? We’re prescient.”

Justin’s rating: I too have a time travel device. I call it “my bed.”

Justin’s review: Shane Carruth wants you to think you’re stupid. It’s okay. You’re not alone in being attacked.

Carruth is the writer, director and one of the main stars of a buzzworthy indie called Primer. He’s also the answer to the question, “What do you get when you put an elitist Ph.D. behind a movie camera to deal with the complexities of time travel?” His incredibly short yet confounding scifi flick has been making the circuit for a couple years now — my brother Jared actually spotted this one and brought it to my attention — as its look defies the mere $7,000 spent to make it, and the plot therein maddening to people who like films to make, you know, sense.

Filmed in depressingly bleak homes, offices, and storage facilities with harsh lights and a never-ending supply of white shirts and ties, Primer follows two engineers who create a “something” box in their garage. Only midway through the movie do they figure out that it’s a box that creates the potential for time travel. There’s a catch here, because it only works as long as whatever’s inside of it can make a conscious decision to exit the box while it’s in the past before it brings the object back to the present.

Aaron and Abe, being the emotionless engineers that they are, coolly devise rules (which are never clearly explained) on how to travel in time, and start to utilize bigger versions of the box to make themselves a crapload of moolah.

Following it so far? That’s because I’m not writing this the way the movie presents it — if I was, I’d be overlapping my sentences constantly, showing things deliberately out of focus, and spouting so much technobabble at you that it can’t help but make you feel like Geordi LaForge is about to step out of the Enterprise’s engine room to clear things up. By the last act of the film, most people — myself included — are completely lost. Carruth pompously states that it takes a minimum of two viewings to even start to begin to understand what’s going on, but this isn’t so much credited to his skill with a masterfully thought-out plot, but more because he refuses to explain anything, ever, and deliberately edits scenes to seed confusion in the audience.

Now, I’m the type of guy who spits on both extremes when it comes to intellectualism in film. If you’re a filmmaker who sees their audience as cranky three-year-olds who need handholding and simplified plot points, then you earn my derision. Likewise, if you’re a filmmaker who’s trying so hard to make a work of art that deliberately shoots far, far over the heads of their audience, just so that you can feel superior while the rest of us apes are scratching our armpits in puzzlement, then I have a lemon-lime pie in my fridge, ready for a bit of face-smooshing. I’m all for films being smart, I wish more of them would be. A movie that gets me thinking about it for the next couple days — such as another convoluted, yet clearer time-travel film, Donnie Darko — is to be commended, as long as there is a reasonable explanation that I can arrive at. You could tackle Primer with flow charts and diagrams and the director at knifepoint, and really never be the wiser for it.

Even away from time travel, the movie is glossed with a Fight Club-style of bleakness. Most of the characters interact in minimally decorated rooms, relationships go on with little or no emotion, and soul is remarkably absent from the flick. Even toward the end of the whole thing, when there appears to be a time travel rescue going on (do I need to reiterate that it’s not explained and confusing as a barrel of monkeys in your shower?), there’s no emotional motivation surrounding Abe and Aaron’s actions.

It’s a shame, because for all of its last-minute unraveling, Primer shows a gleam of genius in all of the little details. Here, time travel and the boxes take on a more sinister role, far away from other scifi time travel epics where the paradoxes are neatly wrapped up and no one is ever hurt much by it. The small moments — like when one of the characters starts bleeding from his ear and they have no idea if it’s a side effect from the box or not — spark the imagination and have us begging for answers that will never come.

Maybe I’m just way off base here. Maybe this is a tribute to all engineers out there. In that case, enjoy. You can have it all.

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