Before watching the movie:
I’m not sure how long ago this movie came to my attention. I think it might have been when this comic was published, which was roughly six years ago, but I’m not sure but that it hadn’t come up before then. It seems to have the reputation of being the densest time travel movie ever, but then it seems a vast majority of the audience couldn’t understand Back to the Future Part 2.
The most specific thing I know about the plot is that it concerns a time machine with rules often cited as probable for potential real time machines, but rarely used in fiction because it limits the kinds of stories that can be told. The title always makes me think of a textbook, but I think it’s more likely to be about priming the machine due to those operational restrictions.
Between the highly cerebral reputation, the independent production, and a synopsis I saw that is likely to just be describing the first scene in a zero-tolerance approach to spoilers, it seems entirely likely that this could be an hour and a half of two guys in a room talking about what they’re going to do with the machine and only at the end revealing the actual result. I have seen duller “people just talking” movies about mindbending concepts. (See Mindwalk, which adapted a nonfiction book about physics by having a few characters meander through an art gallery talking. Or maybe don’t.)
After watching the movie:
A group of four entrepreneur engineers have built a business barely kept afloat in their garage around their day jobs, building a prototype chamber. When they manage to successfully stabilize it, the test object appears to decrease in mass from the readout, but whatever it actually does (which is buried in non-expository technobabble beyond my ken) is still not understood well enough to try to market. Until Abe decides to test the filmy buildup he keeps having to wipe off the test object every few days, which turns out to be from an organic process that should take months to accumulate to that degree. Studying the effect, he determines that what’s happening inside is a state of null time, with the object inside, still advancing in subjective time, bouncing between the moment the machine was turned on and the moment the machine is shut off, until it experiences a 1 in 1300 chance of exiting the loop. Abe then theorizes that an intelligent subject could time an exit to emerge at the earlier end of the loop, and builds a larger box to test on himself before telling his partner Aaron. Through the course of a week, their trials together determine that causality is not conserved, they can change the course of events as they remember them. They can massage history to get the most favorable outcome. Gifted with the power to rewrite the world to cater to whatever they want, only one of them can have the final edit.
None of this is spoonfed. There’s barely any exposition. Things happen that don’t make sense at first blush. Objective causality is not in the picture from the inciting incident onward. Insignificant things may be important, or they may be narrative misdirection. Nothing is as straightforward as it seems when the story loops back on itself at least once a day. Some things even the writer/director/star won’t claim a definitive interpretation of. It’s impossible to understand this movie without many viewings, diagrams, and discussion with other people. It may be too complicated to fit in one head all at once.
Robert Rodriguez (probably among others) has pointed out that limitations produce the most creative results. This uses a theory of how time machines may work that’s usually considered narratively impractical (travel to before the machine was turned on is impossible, it subjectively takes as long to travel back as the destination is long ago), and builds an intricate network of plot in less than a week of real time. The boxes looking exactly like something two guys would build in a garage means the filmmakers can cobble them together out of found parts for next to nothing. This may be the most famous no-budget film ever. The only problem is that with only one or two effects shots in the whole film, some of the more complicated moments are not shown and harder to understand.
Much like the movie, for the characters, it reaches a point where the only way to understand some things is to go back and go through it all again. But it’s best to try to sleep through the rewinding, which would make even less sense.
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