By their bootstraps

Last Christmas, I believe, the Always Esteemed Scott Shepherd included, in with a bevy of other much appreciated Christmas gifts to our family, a DVD of a strange little film I had not previously heard a word about: Primer.

SuperWife and I actually sat down and watched it fairly soon after we received it (which, with three kids in the house, would mean, within a few weeks, probably) and I imagine Scott has been scanning my blog for the last ten months or so, wondering when the fuck we were even going to mention the movie. The reason we haven't is, well, we didn't really understand a great deal of the movie.

We liked what we understood, mind you, but still... this is a pretty bewildering, not easily accessible film.

I've recently had a chance to sit down by myself and watch the entire film again in a morning, without interruptions. I gleaned a great deal more of the central plot structure and characterization arcs this time around, than I did the first time. I suspect future repeat viewings will allow me to perceive even more of the intricate multilayering that makes up the plot... but for now, all I can say about the film is that it's probably one of the most intelligently written science fiction films ever made.

Beyond that, Here Lurk Spoilers:

PRIMER is a time travel movie. I'm putting that below the jump, after the spoiler warning, because it's probably something that you're best off not knowing going into it. As the flick initializes, it seems to essentially be about four guys who like to mess around inventing stuff in one of their garages in whatever free time they can find to spare after working tough engineering day jobs for big corporations, and spending evenings and weekends with wives, kids, and/or girlfriends. Eventually, two of them stumble onto something big -- a machine they've been working on in hopes of creating close-to-room-temperature superconductors (I believe) provides some of the results they've been looking for... but with some strange side effects they don't understand.

Once Our Heroes sit down and work the math, they still don't understand how or why these strange side effects are occurring, but they do manage to figure out very specifically exactly what is happening... they think. It would appear that they've discovered a way to create a field that accelerates entropy on anything inside it -- which is to say, you put a test object inside the field, power it up, then let it power down again... and in the couple of seconds that the machine was running, the test object seems to experience something like 22 hours of temporal duration. Which is to say, if you put a digital wrist watch with a calendar function inside the field and power up, a few seconds later when you power down again, the wrist watch will show that 22 hours have gone by.

PRIMER is not easy access; the script does not spoon feed. There is a fuck of a lot of information this movie has to get across, and the writer tries very hard to play fair, using real scientific language and real equations to describe what's going on, instead of simply indulging in the usual Hollywood SF double-talk. Stuff gets mentioned once, usually in a hurry, and then the plot moves right along to the next point. Being as I have about the furthest thing imaginable from a mathematically inclined mind, I could not really tell you just how they jump to the next realization -- that, essentially, what they've invented is a device that will allow a very limited type of time travel. Which is to say, if you start the machine up, then wait 22 hours, you can insert yourself into the field, stay in the field for another several hours while it continues to cycle... and then emerge from the machine at the point where you originally started it up... 22 hours before you actually got into it.

Okay, let me go through that again, step by step:

(a) Start the machine up, say, at 9 AM on Monday, October 1. For reasons that will hopefully become clear, Our Heroes always do this using a timer; they hit a button that will start the machine 15 minutes later, then get the hell out of dodge.

(b) Wait 22 hours. To minimize possible paradoxes, and to try to ensure they never run into their own past selves, Our Heroes go to a motel and stay there, with all access from the outside world turned off, for the entire day. From the motel they can watch TV and use the Internet, but they are passively monitoring the world, taking pains not to interact with it. Why? Because --

(c) After 22 hours, they go back to the machine, at exactly the point in its work cycle that they have already calculated will allow them to enter the already created entropic distortion field. Call this 7 am, Tuesday, October 2. Our Heroes have oxygen tanks with them, as there is no breathable air inside the E/D field. They will lie in the E/D field, trying to sleep, for the next several hours, as the machine's work cycle completes.

(d) The machine's work cycle completes and the machine shuts down. Everything inside the machine finds itself, somehow, emerging from the machine at nearly the exact moment the original work cycle began -- at 9 am on Monday, October 1. Or, rather, at 9:15, which is when the machine actually started up; remember, Our Heroes use a timer. Why? Because they know that, if all goes as planned, seconds after they start the machine, the machine will shut off again, and they themselves will emerge from it -- having traveled back into the past from 22 hours in the future. And they don't want to meet themselves, ever -- they have no idea what would happen if they did, and don't want to find out.

I myself still do not quite follow how the narrative moves from "Hey, 22 hours goes by inside the machine and no time at all goes by outside" to "Say, we can get into the machine 22 hours after we started and stopped it originally and we'll end up getting out of it back when we first started and stopped it". The movie explains it, but it does so pretty quickly, uses a lot of numbers and scientific jargon (that, for all I know, may all be doubletalk, but it sounds impressive) and I haven't managed to grasp it yet. But all you really need to know is what I've told you -- start the machine up, wait 22 hours, get into the machine, lie inside it for several more hours, then get out -- at the point you originally started it, 22 hours before you got inside it.

Once Our Heroes start actually messing with the machine, the movie turns into any sci-fi geek's wet dream of a time travel flick. This movie is the cinematic equivalent of Heinlein's BY HIS BOOTHSTRAPS or Gerrold's THE MAN WHO FOLDED HIMSELF, a very nearly definitive and essential distillation of everything that might or possibly could occur when you start screwing around with your own personal continuity-stream. Our Heroes, naturally, use the machine to play the stock market and get rich, but of course, they can't continue to play it safe for very long, and fairly quickly, they start to detect fall out from what must be extensive meddling with the time stream by one or both of them.

One brilliant example -- the two of them are driving out to the time machine one night when they notice somebody else (a character we've barely seen prior to that point) following them in a car. Now, they know this guy, and in fact, one of Our Heroes is sure he just saw him a few hours before, clean shaven and well dressed. Now, it's the same guy, but he's got a three day growth of beard and his clothes look like he's slept in them. So they chase him down and he collapses (Our Heroes have already discovered that time travel occasionally has negative side effects on your health), going into a coma from which he never awakens. This completely baffles Our Heroes; all they can figure is that one of them must have told this guy about the time machine at some point in the future, and this guy must have used the machine to come into the past to try to change something... but what? And has it been changed? And how would they ever know?

I love shit like this. In a third person textual narrative, of course, the reader is omniscient and would follow the action all the way through the temporal loop -- we would see what actually happened in 'the future' and know exactly what the guy is trying to do, hanging around outside Our Heroes house and following them in his car. But in this film, we are trying to follow the timeline as Our Heroes move through it... so we don't know what happened to cause the stranger to travel back in time, because apparently, his time trip is successful and he prevents whatever it was from happening. So neither of Our Heroes ever tell anyone else about the time machine...

(My hypothesis is this -- one of Our Heroes, say, Aaron, is meddling with the time stream in a way that could potentially turn tragic, or even fatal for him, at any moment. So he prepares a sealed letter and leaves it with this other guy, to be opened only in the event of his sudden, unexpected, violent death. Then things go spectacularly pear shaped and Aaron ends up dead. So the other guy opens the letter, finds instructions on how to use the time machine and what to do to change the immediate past, follows them, and while things do go bad for him, still, it's enough of a warning to Aaron, in the past, that he manages to be more careful and avoid whatever mistake it was that led to his death in 'the future' that has now been completely avoided.)

More important than the actual time travel is the effect it ends up having on Our Heroes, Aaron and Abe. Where they start, and where they end up, and what they go through to get there, may well encompass one of the most fascinating character arcs ever shown in cinema.

All in all, while PRIMER is a largely unintelligible film, at least, on the first viewing, it's one that I believe rewards repeat viewings on DVD, and one that is well worth watching for anyone who thinks it is impossible to make a really intelligent SF movie, especially a time travel SF movie.

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