Thursday, June 28, 2012

Movie Review: Primer

Primer is a science fiction film that was made on a shoestring budget. There is a ton of hype about the plot's complexity. And I really hate to make this comparison, but it has that post modernistic feel to it like Pynchon. Also, I wasn't the slightest bit surprised that its director / main star / writer, Shane Carruth, has a degree in mathematics. It's plot and narrative have overwhelmed so many viewers to the point where they believe anyone who claims to understand it is either a liar or a genius. I'm neither. And its complexity really comes from one dimension of story telling: A place I'm very comfortable with.

Here is the point where I want you to watch it before reading onward — unless you don't care. P.S. this is going to be really confusing and redundant. There is really no way around this when you deal with a plot that involves timey wimey stuff.

The movie centers around garage inventors who run their own business, on the side of their normal engineering jobs. I'm not sure what they're selling, but it appears to be some sort of card for your PC that does something engineers or hackers would want to do. And the next scene is a myriad of vague references to their project. But when I heard they were using superconductors, I knew they would be experimenting with quantum effects or lasers.

After a short while, one of their projects is shown. It appears they've built a machine which can levitate objects. I want to say the effect is diamagnetism, since they are floating wood in the form of paper confetti, with wood being a diamagnetic substance. And if you haven't seen this effect, here is a YouTube video showing it on a frog. In this case, it's the water in the frog acting as the main diamagnetic substance that helps it appear to defy gravity.

But they start seeing other weird effects; it's outputting more power than what's being used, and they realize they really don't know what they have. Again, it's purposely vague with some actual engineering, math, and science terms thrown in to lend it a tinge of credibility while avoiding actual scientific conflicts.

After some time goes by, they discover the machine has the ability to loop time. They first notice this when some fungus is found growing on the weeble toy they used in their experiments. Initially, I thought the effect was just time dilation. But it turns out that the object was constantly being replaced by a future version. And this process continuously loops, causing the object to age much faster; it's recursive, building on each pass. I'll explain.

Imagine you have an apple and you place it in their machine. First, you need to keep the machine running for awhile. From the original point it starts running, that's your first input — which they referred to as A. The moment the loop reaches its furthest point into the future, point B, it curves time back around to the start. Since it's continuously moving in a linear path, the apple ages all the way back to point A. And this effect could continue until our apple suffers its complete entropic destiny. In the film, it's explained as each minute, to the observer, equals about 1,300 inside — which is 21.7 hours (rounded).

This was the beginning of the the time travel plot. Their next problem was how to control it and exit a loop wherever they want, which basically comes down to just exiting their boxes at a certain interval, measured by a digital watch. And this goes back to a comment made earlier about how American's spent millions of dollars trying to solve the issue of a pen working in space — were as the Russians solved it by using a pencil.

Luckily, thanks to relativity, it's slow enough inside for them to be able to accomplish this task quite easily. However, they can't go back further than the moment the original machine was turned on. And the farther into the future they are, the longer they'll have to wait inside it to get near the original starting point. This is why they look for sleeping solutions, such as gas induced comas. And this explains the scene where Abe takes gas tanks to the storage unit — not to be confused with the gas tanks they used to cool the machine's superconductor, toward the beginning of the film. And the failsafe machine is just another "coffin" that has been running longer and can be used to travel back to before any time travel occurred and reset the universe if things went pear shaped.

The film gets into a lot of paradoxes at this point. They start to think of all the things they could do. And Aaron eventually goes rogue. Apparently, the farther back or more you use it, the harder it is on your body. This is confirmed when Abe uses the fail-safe machine and goes back to the start of it all. It also reveals that Aaron had been using it a lot more than Abe knew about, earlier in the film. And this is also directly shown toward the end.

Trouble really starts when they discover that their corporate boss seems to also be using one of the boxes. It's not revealed how and why as when they confront him, he goes into a plot device, I mean coma, after taking a fall. Seeing as how he was tailing them, it's most likely he was trying to prevent them from doing something, at a certain moment. But we'll never know.

It's also unclear how many of them are running around at any given time. And this is where it gets really confusing. Aaron gets power hungry and starts engineering his future. He keeps going back until he discovers the correct actions that will yield him the results he desires. He records them on paper and on a tape recorder. And a part of his plan involves locking up his past self and past Abe. There is also a scene where he confronts another past self who agrees to leave. And this Aaron is the narrator of the film, who had just begun to record his actions.

It's unclear to me whether the boxes were ever meant to be believed as one time use things. But they certainly aren't. Aaron claims he could fold a box into another one to "recycle" it. But I don't think this would actually work out nearly as smoothly, theoretically speaking. Clearly, the easiest way to reuse them is to travel back to a time when nobody is physically in the box, if you can have multiple loops, to avoid paradoxes. But going further back, in the same box, should result in a complete replacement of all the matter inside it with the matter from the future traveler — thus creating a causality paradox. Of course, there is a lot more wrong with this on several levels, but I don't want to get into it.

In the end, Aaron and Abe come to a stale mate. Abe will stay back and continuously sabotage the machines for their past selves, who are shown to escape their confinements. And Aaron ends up amassing enough money to build multitudes of boxes. And narrator Aaron has left his recording for his past self and Abe, detailing the accounts of everything that happened up to where he left and his speculations on what future Aaron would have done.

This was a monster of a plot to pull apart, so I apologize for any errors in it. But this is the crux of the film as it's really not character, effect, or imagery driven. And with that said, it's time to look at the negatives of it.

There are some really poorly shot scenes in it: Shaky, out of focus, bad lighting, bad colors, and bad pans. And this isn't surprising considering its budget. Less money equals less time with your locations, actors, and gear — doubly so when you're working with older film based movie cameras.

The characters are very boring. They spout off sciencey sounding exposition like crazy, but they leave a lot to the imagination when it comes to personality. It was almost surrealistic how focused they always were. And maybe that's an engineering thing, but I would have liked a lot more contrast with the main characters. Hell, they even dressed the same.

It's a bit bloated. This is back to that Pynchon reference. At times it gave me the same feeling as looking at statistical equations within Gravity's Rainbow. I can get it. But at the same time, I'm not going to remember it after I'm done with the story, and it feels unnecessary. And I realize this is stylistic as well. But I think a good chunk of the exposition was a bit heavy handed.

In conclusion, it's worth a watch if you're scientifically literate. If you're not, you may find yourself missing the interesting parts and being completely lost toward the ending; it is confusing regardless. You'll also probably think it's genius because you can't get it. And I don't know if it is or not. I'll let you decide that. To me, what makes it interesting is it's at odds with most time travel movies. It doesn't really tackle paradoxes, morals, or much of the human element. Instead, it's closer to filming an experiment. This definitely makes it unique. But as a story goes, I still want the complete package, and this fell short of the Internet hype.

1 comment:

  1. Haha, scientifically literate. Good post.

    Here's a step wise explanation of each of the timelines that get created by Aaron and Abe, this helps even if you aren't too scientifically literate :)