Review: Primer

PRIMER is a 2004 science fiction film concerning the accidental discovery of time travel by two overworked and underpaid researchers. It is perhaps the best written and most poorly executed film ever filmed.

The film itself is a puzzle box meant for the viewer to unlock. Aside from the intellectual pleasure of piecing together scattered clues to deduce the true course of events, there is honestly little to recommend this film.

It is film for lovers of logic puzzles only. But it is the best logic puzzle film ever made.

The film was produced, written, edited, directed by, and stars Shane Carruth. He also did the set design, sound design, and scored the music. The whole budget for the film was under $7,000. It was nominated for various awards and won three, including Sundance Film Festival film prizes for direction and drama.

It is noteworthy for being the brainchild of one brain, a vision uninterrupted by any meddling by studio or by committee. The film is frankly an amazing testament to what a smart, well-envisioned, demanding film can be.

But it also falls prey to the weaknesses of being a one-man production, and being too smart for its own good. Namely, the film is basically a stunningly well written radio play with a bland and well-nigh useless visual accompaniment.

The documentary film approach means that the dialog is delivered in normal speaking tones, with characters talking over each other, or in technical jargon, and vital clues can be easily missed.

The writing also attempts what might be called the Hemmingway trick of having the central event driving the drama not only offstage, but never mentioned, leaving the viewer with implications and hints only.

Using realistic, natural lighting for the scenes means that at least one crucial scene, central to the whole plot, is too obscure to see what happens or why.

In an earnest, hyper-realistic, almost documentary-film fashion, the film shows the degeneration over the course of a week of the two ordinary men into criminal conduct. The temptation of foreknowledge, and the promise of controlling events, which means, controlling others, proves too great, for one, perhaps for both.

The plot is told, as befits a time travel story, in a nonlinear fashion, leaving the viewer to replay the film in his own head to make sense of which event caused which and why.

We are also given a voiceover of a narrator, one of the time-duplicates of the main character, explaining to his past self events that, apparently, will now never happen, unless, of course, they will. Alas, this narrator neither offers any insight into his motivation, nor makes clear what is happening on the screen when he talks.

The filmmaker’s decision to be obscure instead of clear, when the underlying puzzlebox of events is already as confusing as an Escher drawing, is a poor one, and robs this film of any broad appeal, or any strong recommendation from me.

Nonetheless, this film embraces the most disciplined, sober, and clever inspections of the silly idea of time travel, its paradoxes and dangers, ever to appear in any medium, including the moral implications. That alone should recommend for at least one viewing; but to piece together the events, may require two or three, and perhaps a notepad to keep track of the (at least) seven timelines involving (at least) three reduplicated versions of the main characters.

Everything beyond this point is spoilers, since the only thing worth discussing in the film, aside from a rather dark and subtle theme, the adroit use of irony and foreshadowing, are how cleverly the plot twists are accomplished.

*** *** ***

The film opens with a narrator reading a letter over the phone.

The letter starts with the rather ominous words “Here’s what’s going to happen…” – which has a second meaning, since the letter also foretells future events.

“Now, some of this you know…” — because the letter is being written by a time traveler to an earlier version of himself, a version who already knows the events leading up to a certain point, namely, up through the end of the first act.

The narrator describes the characters, including himself, as men who take what they need from their surroundings and turn it into something more. As if in a palindrome, this same phrase used in the narrator’s first remark is also used in his last.

This also sets the theme of the piece: more on this later.

The first act of the film is perhaps the most boring half hour in cinema. It consists poorly-lit half-inaudible scenes of four men in ties, described as meticulous, methodical and educated, but who make occasional mistakes, working long hours in their spare time trying to develop commercial technical applications of their inventions, such as isolating gravity via room-temperature superconductors.

Their budget is low. Unable to afford lab space, they use the garage of one of their members. They talk of cost saving measures or how to jury rig equipment from spare auto parts. A brief mention is made of Joseph Platts, a former member now their boss, who deceived them and cut them out of the profits of one of the group’s inventions.

Two characters, so drained of personality that they may as well have been called AA and AB, discover time travel. AA is Aaron Michael, the leader of the four-man group, and AB is Abram Terger, the first discoverer of time travel, albeit he is later upstaged by Aaron to become only the second. Note that his last name backward is ‘Regret.’

Aaron is a family man, with wife and daughter named Kara and Lauren, and at the film’s beginning shows a mild preference for caution, such as telling men to use goggles, or his wife not to use ice from an unclean icemaker.

Abe is less assertive than Aaron. Abe is unmarried, but is dating a girl named Rachel for the mercenary reason of approaching her father, Mr. Thomas Granger, who is the group’s last hope of funding. Abe hence is somewhat selfish. (Please note that this unworthy motive is never actually shown onstage, it is merely reported by the narrator, who, as it turns out, is an unreliable narrator, and may not be seeing the truth.)

It is noteworthy that by the end of the film, these personality traits are reversed.

The second act consist of an expertly-handled slowly-building tension as Abe shows Aaron that one of their experimental gravity-isolation boxes reverses the flow of time.

Because the clever and methodical way time travel is handled in this film is the best thing about the film, a detailed explanation is in order.

When the field of a gravity-isolation box is switched on at Time A, any object within ages naturally, one second per second, until reaching Time B, when the field is switched off; whereupon it inverts in time, travels backward, negative one second per second, to Time A, encounters the field being switched on, inverts again and travels back to B, over and over.

But if a man, rather than an inanimate object, builds an isolation box the size of a coffin, switched it on, waited eight hours, and interred himself within the coffin when it was switched off, time for him would reverse. And, after a nap of eight hours, he could emerge eight hours prior, at the moment he switched it on. He can emerge at no intermediate point, nor reach any earlier point.

If he were methodical, and wanted to avoid a time-paradox, he would use a timer to switch the box on and off, so that he could enter or leave a moment before or after his previous or later self was due to disinter or to inter himself.

The time traveler, disinterred at the earlier point, would then be free to relive the previous eight hours.

Keep in mind that during the span of time the box field is on, there are three time travelers: First self who lived through the day outside the box and enters the box at switch-off point; reversed-self who is sleeping inside the box but with his time flowing backward; Second self who exits the box at switch-on point and lives through the same day, but now is armed with foreknowledge.

Abe’s first experiment with time travel is on a Monday. He builds a time-coffin and stows it in a self-storage garage, which is climate controlled, locked, and likely to be left undisturbed. He switches it on and then leaves, for he is unwilling to meet Second Abe who is about to emerge.

To ensure that first and second Abe never meet nor meddle with each other, after switching on the box, First Abe checks into a hotel room, unplugs phone, radio, and television. He only leaves the hotel room to go the box at switch-off point, which is in the late afternoon. He then disappears into it and becomes reverse-self.

Opening the box while the field is active is dangerous, perhaps even killing one’s reverse-self. No one tries it. So, it is unknown whether the box is occupied from First Abe’s point of view.

There are two possibilities: If time travel always maintains symmetry from every frame of reference, then the box was always occupied, because there is and can be only one timeline. If the box is unoccupied the first time First Abe switches it on, and a new world is created when reverse-Abe climbs in the box, then the universe splits off a new timeline with every iteration, that is, every time the box is used.  In such a universe, the box is unoccupied on Monday Timeline One, but is occupied by reverse-Abe on Monday Timeline Two, which is split off when he enters the box at switch-off point Monday afternoon.

Because of this, each box can be used only once, for one trip.

At the end of the Monday experiment, First Abe vanishes into the box, becoming reverse-Abe sleeping backward in the box. At that point, Second Abe, finished with living through the day’s events, goes to the self-storage garage and switches off the box.

The day’s events were these. Monday morning, he meets Aaron on a park bench, listening to the radio through an earpiece, and convinces him to take the day off, and spends the day walking him (and the audience) through the steps of his discovery.

It is ironic that, in one scene, two characters repeat each other’s lines word for word, since this also happens later, when the time travelers are trapped into replaying one particular scene many times over.

An added irony, or, rather, a clue, is that in a scene before this, Aaron repeats a joke he hears in a scene after this.

Abe then shows Aaron the time coffin. It is explicitly said that the thing is dangerous. They know as little about time travel effects on the human body as Madame Curie knew about radiation poisoning.

Both Abe and Aaron do not want to create any paradoxes, and so are very cautious in how they use the box over the next three days. They play the stock market anonymously, armed with tips gained from previous First selves. This avoids the publicity one might gain, for example, by winning the lottery, and ensures a steadier stream of capital.

It noteworthy that these methodical and scientific gentlemen neither know nor care what the companies in which they invest make or do. They are merely using the market as a raw material to solve a problem, to quench a desire.

The time coffin is also leaking the argon gas held inside — albeit this may be caused by one of the travelers entering and leaving the box without telling the other, letting gas escape when he opens the lid. This is one of the abundant ambiguities of the deliberately ambiguous movie. But, either way, the ironic line “there are always leaks” applies to our two scientists, who meddle with what men were not to know; for, as it turns out, they are not cautious enough, nor could anyone be.

During the second act, the experiment is a resounding success. They grow rich. On Monday evening, there is a birthday party where Rachel is bullied and threatened by a previous boyfriend. Neither man is present, but hear of the event later. The ex-boyfriend apparently flourished a shotgun, but no one was hurt.

On Tuesday, when chatting with Kara, Aaron’s wife, about what one would do if one could foreknow the future, she complains of noises in the attic, and asks Aaron to call pest control. Aaron mentions his daydream about punching Platts.

On Wednesday, the first mistake is made. On Thursday, their lives fall apart.

Even though there are no fist fights, car chases, or murders shown on stage, the slowly building tension in the film is caused by three things:

First, time travel is shown as physical dangerous to the men. Ears start bleeding as if from neural hemorrhage. Handwriting progressively becomes shaky and illegible as fine motor skills degrade. It is a clue that this degradation happens to Aaron before it happens to Abe.

Second, as this degradation happens, so does their moral degradation, so gradually that it might not be noticed. Many a viewer might watch this film, and be so busy unwinding the puzzlebox plot, as to not notice what is happening to the characters.

Moral degradation starts when both agree not to tell their partners about the time coffin, in effect, shutting them out of the benefits of their own work in just the same way Platts did, except with an invention much more significant. Aaron and Abe deceive the other two by what seems an innocent lie, telling them the garage is being fumigated. Next, Aaron and Abe will each deceive the other, stealing gear, trying to retain a veto power over the events of the week, so as to be able to rewrite each others’ decisions. Next, they will both commit assaults and kidnappings, if only against earlier versions of themselves. Finally, these shenanigans will end with both men, each by his own action, being exiled forever from his life, friends, family.

Third, tension increases as they cannot actually control the events through which they live. Aaron and Abe do not know what would happen if they “break symmetry” that is, create a paradox where first self and second self, rather than experiencing the same event from two viewpoints, each experience two different events, hence are split into two distinct persons from different timelines.

However, on Wednesday, an error as simple as forgetting to switch off a cell phone does exactly that. First Aaron and Second Aaron receive the same phone call from Aaron’s wife, Kara. No obvious ill seems to come from the event, however, but now it is known that time can be split into alternate timelines. If symmetry is maintained, the observer can foreknow events, but not edit them; if symmetry is not maintained, he can edit events, and is not merely an observer.

If time can be split into timelines, it can be altered to a second and third revision, or more.

On Thursday morning the opportunity comes.

Abe is wakened after midnight by a prankish skateboarder setting off a car alarm outside his window. He phones Aaron. The two of them can now punch Platts, as daydreamed, enter the time coffin early, regress back to midnight, prevent the prank, and create a new timeline, one where Abe and Aaron will then sleep through the night undisturbed, and Platts will never be punched.

During the phonecall when this plan is planned, Abe reveals that he has been secretly, unbeknownst to Aaron, switching the coffins on late each evening, outside the agreed-upon hours. This means that there are empty coffins, fields switched on, available on early Thursday morning to carry them back to late Wednesday evening.

However, as they are about to enact this scheme, they spot Thomas Granger, Rachel’s father, watching the house. He has several day’s growth of beard, and a phone call to his house shows another, presumably earlier, version of him is still at home in bed. This means he is a time traveler, which means the secret of time travel was betrayed to him. In some version of events now lost, either Aaron or Abe showed Granger how to use the time coffin.

However, Granger falls into a coma before any explanation is spoken: the brain damage caused by time travel, in his case, is very great, indicating that he spent extensive hours in a time coffin, perhaps making many trips.

But as the two men debate what to do with the spare Mr. Granger stowed in a coma in a spare bedroom, they realize they can never know what happened. The question is literally unanswerable, since the events leading up to the spare Mr. Granger doubling back through time have already been rewritten and erased.

The film never establishes what might have prompted one of them to betray their secret to Granger. As a matter of speculation, there are two possibilities.

First, the attempt to punch Platts might have ending badly, with one of them being arrested, or, if the altercation got out of hand, shot. Myself, I regard this as unlikely, as no matter what happened between Platts and Aaron, Granger has no established motive to undertake dangerous trips into a time coffin to rescue either.

Second, and, in my opinion, much more likely, Granger’s daughter Rachel was murdered at the party Monday evening, and Aaron went to him for help, because Abe was wounded, dead, or, worse, proved himself unwilling to save her. This unwillingness is a possibility because there is a line of dialog where he mutters that, because of the way she behaves, her being killed by an old boyfriend is no more than she deserves.

Perhaps in this now-erased timeline, Aaron was livid with fury that Abe was so careless of the wellbeing of his girlfriend, so he betrayed their secret to Granger, Rachel’s father. Desperation over the death of his daughter prompts Granger to believe the story of time travel, so he enters the dangerous coffin. The speculation seems sound, since no other motive is sufficient to involve Granger in the events.

(Ah, but at the party on Monday, while the ex-boyfriend flourished a gun, no one was hurt, was he? In the first version of events, yes. In later revisions, not necessarily. More on this later.)

The reason why the second theory is more likely is that Granger is described as having several day’s growth of beard. This indicates a trip of several days.

But in order for a trip of several days to be possible, given that time travel has only existed since Monday, four days ago, a previously undisclosed isolation box, which the narrator calls a failsafe box, must have existed since then, and been switched on since then, and had been running continuously.

The first plot twist is that there is such a failsafe box.

Unbeknownst to Aaron, Abe built this second box when he built his first box, storing it in the same self-storage garage, and it has been running continuously, in order to maintain an exit-point early Monday morning. Abe did this to retain the opportunity of revisiting the scene in the park when he first tells Aaron of his discovery, and undo the events, preventing the time travel experiments.

With Granger in a coma, Abe secretly enters the failsafe box, spending three days, emerges before sunrise on Monday. Then he assaults his earlier version in his sleep, gasses him with nitrous oxide, stows him in the bathroom, and takes his place. Let us call the earlier version First Abe hereafter, and his one week older attacker is Second Abe.

Second Abe then goes to the park to meet Aaron. He intends to rewrite the coming events to rob Aaron of the knowledge of the time coffins. All he need do is not tell him the secret.

Oddly, when Abe walks up, Aaron then answers a comment which Abe does not make. Not in this version of the scene.

Abe, exhausted by going without proper sleep for a week, and exposed to the nerve-damaging effects of time travel, faints. As he faints, Aaron removes the earpiece, and we hear a recording of the park bench conversation from the first iteration of the scene being played.

The second plot twist is that this Aaron is a third version of himself, listening to a recording made by a second version. For there are two failsafe boxes, not one.

Earlier Aaron,  mistrustful, and methodical, while snooping, found Abe had rented not one but two lockers in the self-storage garage. Aaron discovered Abe’s failsafe box and deduced its purpose.

Aaron then built two modular boxes over the next day or so, returned to the self-storage garage, switched the failsafe off, creating an entry point, and entered it, taking the disassembled boxes with him. Call him Second Aaron.

Exiting at the switch-on point early Monday, Second Aaron reassembles his two boxes, stows the first box on secretly elsewhere in the garage, and switches it on. This is his failsafe. This forms the earliest exit point to which Aaron can travel.

Then he replaces Abe’s failsafe with the second of his re-assembled boxes, a duplicate failsafe, which he does not switch on until hours later. This switch-on point of the duplicate failsafe now becomes the earliest exit point to which Abe can travel.

Aaron’s first time travel point hence is now an hour or so earlier than Abe’s first time travel point: he will always have a veto to undo any changes to the week’s events Abe attempts to introduce.

Aaron can repeat the trick with folding a modular box and taking it back with him, box inside box, as often as he likes. He revisits the scene at the party Monday night, where Rachel is threatened, and disarms the gunman, becoming a hero.

Ironically, when Abe learns on Tuesday that Aaron pulled such a heroic stunt on Monday evening, he is livid with fury that Aaron was so careless of the wellbeing of his own wife and daughter. By risking his own life, Aaron risked the life of Kara’s husband and Lauren’s father as well.

Note how odd this is: Abe is angered that Aaron is not protecting his own family, Kara and Lauren, but Abe makes no effort to protect the girl allegedly his own, Rachel, who Aaron spares no effort to protect.

After whatever disaster it is that induces Mr. Granger to enter the time coffin, and when confronted by a puzzle to which they will never know the answer, Abe determines to undo the crucial event leading to the time travel experiment, namely, the conversation in the park.

But Second Abe’s attempt to edit the park scene fails. He is too late. Aaron controls an earlier failsafe point.

For then it is revealed that after exiting the stolen failsafe box, earlier that morning, Second Aaron drugged the breakfast milk of First Aaron, knocking him unconscious, and stowed him in the attic, and took his place. (This explains the sounds Kara hears in the attic later, which she thinks are pests.)

Second Aaron then lives through the events of the day, recording all the conversations. He is dissatisfied with the results of his replay of the party scene, as the ex-boyfriend is disarmed, but not arrested, and still forms a threat to Rachel. Or so he says. Clearly his desire to play the hero, to use his power of prescience, to play God, is overcoming his common sense at this point.

So, he travels back yet again. Call him Third Aaron. He waits for Second Aaron to emerge from stowing First Aaron in the attic, and mugs him. Third Aaron and Second Aaron fight, but Third Aaron is weakened by lack of sleep and the cumulative ill effects of time travel. Second Aaron subdues him.

The two then talk. Oddly, Second Aaron agrees merely to step aside and let Third Aaron take his place, and, armed with recordings of all the days events, to replay the party scene. Second Aaron then steps out of the plotline, but, perhaps feeling bad that he drugged First Aaron, phones him and reads him the letter which forms the narration of the film.

Note that the narration letter is speculation after the point where Second and Third Aaron part ways. Because Second Aaron is the narrator.

Having failed to revise the park scene, Abe agrees to aid Third Aaron in revising the party scene yet again. The narrator does not know now many times this revision takes place. With Abe’s help, eventually Aaron finds a revision that perfectly suits him, with no one hurt, the villain in jail, the girl safe, and he is the hero.

One odd little bit of business is that we see the scene where Aaron arranges, during a pick-up basketball game after lunch, to have the ex-boyfriend invited to the party that evening. This is disorienting, to say the least, because it implies that Aaron arranged the danger as well as arranging the rescue.

I mention this scene because of the extraordinary attention to detail. Second Abe is perched on a balcony above the basketball court, listening over the earpiece to the recording made by Second Aaron, and he hears Aaron being complimented on a great shot. However, at that same moment, the Aaron he is watching, Third Aaron, muffs the shot, and remark is not a compliment, but a  jeer. Even prescience do not grant the time traveler omnipotence. There are always leaks.

After the happy ending of the party scene on Monday, First Aaron is currently waking up from being drugged in his attic, and First Abe is currently waking up from being gassed in his own bathroom. Meanwhile Second Abe and Third Aaron meet at the airport.

They quarrel and part ways.

Aaron will steal his own passport and go to Russia, fat with wealth that knowing the outcome of gambling games and sporting events will provide.

Abe will stay and will prevent the discovery of time travel, if need be, by taking out bits of wire out of First Abe’s prototype if need be. He predicts that since the two are friends, it will not be hard for First Aaron to convince First Abe to abandon the gimmick and work on something else. Normal life will continue, if not for him, for them.

Aaron mocks Abe for not having any exit point early enough in the timestream to get revise events as he wants, to get the life he wants. “It just won’t go back far enough.”

Nor can Abe remove the knowledge of time travel from his younger self, because no time coffin cannot carry a passenger to a point in time before the building of the first time coffin. “It just won’t go back far enough.”

The mockery turns ghoulish when Aaron tells Abe to stuff Kara and Lauren into a time coffin and make a copy of another man’s wife and child to keep for himself. The implication is clear: Abe is accused of coveting the wife and child and quiet suburban life Aaron is throwing away.

That this quiet suburban life includes the younger versions of Abe and Aaron, enjoying a continuing friendship now lost to their quarreling current selves, is a sad irony.

Abe says he will stay and watch over them. Aaron says Abe cannot watch everything forever. Abe says Aaron does not know what Abe is capable of, and warns him to stay away. The threat spoken cannot be taken back. The two men are now enemies.

We do not see what happens to Third Aaron after he abandons wife and child. We do see Second Aaron in France, hiring workmen to build a larger version of the isolation box, a mausoleum more roomy than a coffin.

In closing, the narrator describes the characters, including himself, as men who take what they need from their surroundings and turn it into something more. As if in a palindrome, this same phrase used in the narrator’s first remark is also used in his last.

As mentioned above, this also sets the theme of the piece: namely, contrasting the utility of a tool with its morality. Tools grant control over the environment, not omnipotence, and it is a dangerous illusion to think otherwise.

Time travel is, at root, a silly concept. But it has very sober implications, especially moral implications. A man who knows your future and can change your past can treat you like a raw material, like an author treats a character, like a god treats a mortal. You are merely something in his surroundings he can use to work his will.

Both Abe and Aaron treat not only each other like that, when stealing a failsafe or erasing a past, each will treat the earlier version of himself merely as an inconvenience, to be drugged or gassed or otherwise gotten out of the way.

Aaron abandons friends and family, gives up his life, gives up everything, to pursue the wealth and godlike power time travel grants. He sacrifices all that for his own selfish wants.

Abe, contrariwise, give up his life to protect the lives friends and loved one, a friendship he no longer has, and a life he cannot re enter. He cannot go share his own apartment with himself, or share his girlfriend. Time travel has not edited his existence away, but his life is lost. He has sacrificed his selfish wants for friends and family.

Both men took what they needed from the environment. But only one made something more.