Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Primer (2004)

Note:  This review was originally posted to my Epinions account.

I like science-fiction stories because of the possibilities that they open. This is especially true of time-travel movies. The problem with time travel is that it can be very easy to lose the audience. Pile on too much jargon and techno babble and you almost need a degree to follow along. Make it too simple and people lose interest. I’m not saying it’s impossible to write a good time travel story. It’s just that you have to do it right.

Shane Carruth wrote, directed and starred in Primer, which is a story about two guys that accidentally create a time machine. They’re part of a group of four guys working out of a garage on various projects. The project that they’re currently working on is an alternate source of energy. They spend their days working at ‘regular’ jobs and evenings tinkering with stuff, hoping to make something that’s marketable.

When an item placed in the chamber of the device grows some sort of fungus, they realize something’s amiss. It isn’t until one of them takes it to a lab that they realize that something’s really amiss. There’s way more fungus on it than should have accumulated in a short period of time. We’re talking several months’ worth in a few minutes. It doesn’t take long for them to realize that they have a time machine. If only they could make it bigger…

So, they make bigger boxes and rent some storage space. The primary limitation on the time machine is that it has to be on the entire time you’re in there. This means that you can’t go back to a time before you last turned it on. Not a big deal, since the two guys want to use the device to make money in the stock market using the ultimate in insider information.

They both agree to avoid themselves for fear of really screwing things up. It’s bad enough just going back in time. They have no idea what would happen if they met themselves. However, it is an interesting concept for them to ponder. What would it be like to do something you’ve always wanted to do, but were afraid to do? Could you, say, hit your boss, then go back and tell yourself not to do it?  They don’t do it literally, but they do go back and try to change major events, such as a party where someone gets shot.

Things get really strange when it’s revealed that they have a fail-safe machine. One of the guys built a machine that he just left running in another storage unit the whole time. This way, they could go back and undo everything in case things got botched beyond belief. This means that he thought of changing major events the whole time. It’s basically an escape clause of sorts. That’s where the movie got a little strange. They do go back in time to the beginning. One wants to stop them from inventing the machine while the other’s not so sure.

I don’t want to give away the ending, partly because I don’t fully understand it. By the time the movie was over, so much had happened that I couldn’t follow it all. The movie packed in a lot of story for just 80 minutes. I think that’s where the movie fails. It tries to tell a fairly complicated story in a short time frame. I was paying attention to the movie and I am technically inclined, relatively speaking. I still had a hard time making sense of the movie.

It’s not that the movie tries to hit you over the head with the science or math. It’s just that the two main characters go from trying to get alternate energy to time travel. Then, they go from the stock market to saving people. In the middle of the movie, they realize that someone else has used the machine to go back in time, but they’re not sure what the person has done nor do they really seem to do much about it. The entire subplot takes up maybe a few minutes in the movie. I totally didn’t get the ending at all.

Overall, I’d give the movie two stars. It started out strong, but went way to weird, even for me. It has a low-budget look. (This is probably do in part to the low budget.) It also had a very strange feel to it. It wasn’t quite movie and it wasn’t quite documentary or even mockumentary. It was definitely a different look. Since I watched it on the IFC, I can’t really complain. It wasn’t bad for something I didn’t pay for. 

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