Primer

Primer. ERBP 2004.
Primer. ERBP 2004.

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.

.esnes ssel neve ekam dluow hcihw ,gnidniwer eht hguorht peels ot yrt ot tseb s’ti tuB .niaga lla ti hguorht og dna kcab og ot si sgniht emos dnatsrednu ot yaw ylno eht erehw tniop a sehcaer ti ,sretcarahc eht rof ,eivom eht ekil hcuM

.dnatsrednu ot redrah dna nwohs ton era stnemom detacilpmoc erom eht fo emos ,mlif elohw eht ni stohs stceffe owt ro eno ylno htiw taht si melborp ylno ehT .reve mlif tegdub-on suomaf tsom eht eb yam sihT .gnihton ot txen rof strap dnuof fo tuo rehtegot meht elbboc nac srekammlif eht snaem egarag a ni dliub dluow syug owt gnihtemos ekil yltcaxe gnikool sexob ehT .emit laer fo keew a naht ssel ni tolp fo krowten etacirtni na sdliub dna ,)oga gnol si noitanitsed eht sa kcab levart ot gnol sa sekat ylevitcejbus ti ,elbissopmi si no denrut saw enihcam eht erofeb ot levart( lacitcarpmi ylevitarran deredisnoc yllausu s’taht krow yam senihcam emit woh fo yroeht a sesu sihT .stluser evitaerc tsom eht ecudorp snoitatimil taht tuo detniop sah )srehto gnoma ylbaborp( zeugirdoR treboR

.ecno ta lla daeh eno ni tif ot detacilpmoc oot eb yam tI .elpoep rehto htiw noissucsid dna ,smargaid ,sgniweiv ynam tuohtiw eivom siht dnatsrednu ot elbissopmi s’tI .fo noitaterpretni evitinifed a mialc t’now rats/rotcerid/retirw eht neve sgniht emoS .yad a ecno tsael ta flesti no kcab spool yrots eht nehw smees ti sa drawrofthgiarts sa si gnihtoN .noitceridsim evitarran eb yam yeht ro ,tnatropmi eb yam sgniht tnacifingisnI .drawno tnedicni gniticni eht morf erutcip eht ni ton si ytilasuac evitcejbO .hsulb tsrif ta esnes ekam t’nod taht neppah sgnihT .noitisopxe yna ylerab s’erehT .defnoops si siht fo enoN

.tide lanif eht evah nac meht fo eno ylno ,tnaw yeht revetahw ot retac ot dlrow eht etirwer ot rewop eht htiw detfiG .emoctuo elbarovaf tsom eht teg ot yrotsih egassam nac yehT .meht rebmemer yeht sa stneve fo esruoc eht egnahc nac yeht ,devresnoc ton si ytilasuac taht enimreted rehtegot slairt rieht ,keew a fo esruoc eht hguorhT .noraA rentrap sih gnillet erofeb flesmih no tset ot xob regral a sdliub dna ,pool eht fo dne reilrae eht ta egreme ot tixe na emit dluoc tcejbus tnegilletni na taht seziroeht neht ebA .pool eht gnitixe fo ecnahc 0031 ni 1 a secneirepxe ti litnu ,ffo tuhs si enihcam eht tnemom eht dna no denrut saw enihcam eht tnemom eht neewteb gnicnuob ,emit evitcejbus ni gnicnavda llits ,edisni tcejbo eht htiw ,emit llun fo etats a si edisni gnineppah s’tahw taht senimreted eh ,tceffe eht gniydutS .eerged taht ot etalumucca ot shtnom ekat dluohs taht ssecorp cinagro na morf eb ot tuo snrut hcihw ,syad wef yreve tcejbo tset eht ffo epiw ot gnivah speek eh pudliub ymlif eht tset ot sediced ebA litnU .tekram ot yrt ot hguone llew dootsrednu ton llits si )nek ym dnoyeb elbbabonhcet yrotisopxe-non ni deirub si hcihw( seod yllautca ti revetahw tub ,tuodaer eht morf ssam ni esaerced ot sraeppa tcejbo tset eht ,ti ezilibats yllufsseccus ot eganam yeht nehW .rebmahc epytotorp a gnidliub ,sboj yad rieht dnuora egarag rieht ni taolfa tpek ylerab ssenisub a tliub evah sreenigne ruenerpertne ruof fo puorg A

:eivom eht gnihctaw retfA

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