Time-travel thriller Primer has already gained some festival attention (it won both the Alfred P. Sloan Prize and the Grand Jury Drama Prize at this year's Sundance), and OSCON attendees got a chance to watch the film last Thursday. Primer follows a stretch of time (better said, a series of timeloops) in the lives of a group of young engineers (Aaron, Abe, Robert and Phillip) whose day jobs are just a distraction necessary to pay for their real pursuit: tinkering in Aaron's garage, laboring to come up with the Big Idea that will attract VC funding and make them wildly rich. Two of them certainly find something valuable, but it doesn't lead to easy wealth. (Read on for the rest.)
The informal engineering group has evidently come up with at least one minor success; in the movie's opening scenes (with just a touch of foreboding narration hinting that not is all as it appears), the four are spending a late evening around the kitchen table of Aaron's suburban house, which could be anywhere in Silicon Valley's version of middle-class neighborhoods, or in one of the country's other tech hotbeds. (According to the credits, the movie is actually filmed around Dallas.) They're stuffing padded envelopes with a device the size of a hard drive, and arguing technical and financial details of their next project. It's a tense interchange; the players are frustrated with each other, and it's clear they might not even want to pursue a single project as a foursome.
The dialog here and throughout is sharp; not comic like the trio of lead characters in Office Space, but with the same sense of frustrated white-collar ambition. The jargon (hip-and-hopeful engineerspeak) can be a bit grating, but it flows perfectly and realistically.
The conversation continues in snippets over the next several days or weeks, with arguments over who holds patents, and whether there's an easier way to achieve temperatures low enough for superconduction in parts of the next device. Aaron and Abe are the core of the group, it seems, and the more committed to working with each other; they keep working on it as a pair, ignoring the other two for a time.
The details of what they're really hoping to make are left fuzzy, to say the least; the audience mostly sees haggling and bickering over fine points; whether the palladium is necessary, whether cheaper parts could be substituted, and so on. Visits to machine shops and diagram-driven arguments reveal that they're building something which will emit some kind of field from small plates facing the inside of a rotating mechanism, inside an argon-flooded box.
The two discover that the tabletop mechanism they've been cobbling together has some strange properties. The first clue: once its rotating parts are in motion, disconnecting the car batteries that feed it doesn't make the machine shut off as it should. The machine's motion gradually dies down, but only after minutes of inexplicable motion. Was it simply a bad measurement, or did they they just extract more energy than they'd applied? A type of mold which builds up in the mechanism as they continue to tweak it makes things even stranger; they take a sample to an acquaintance trained in biology; he declares their story of its origin "a joke." The amount of mold they've been cleaning out of the mechanism every few days, he explains, should have taken years -- not days -- to accumulate.
From here, the pace picks up in several ways: inspired by the rapid mold growth, Abe decides to put his watch into the machine, and finds that time seems to have passed within the field much faster than outside it. He and Aaron repeat the experiment, increasingly excited. The obvious ensues, and soon (after literally locking out both Phillip and Robert, making some quick ethical calculations that might not hold up in a patent suit), Abe and Aaron not only determine how to reverse the transit of time within their device, but construct a version big enough for a person to fit inside.
The rest of the film grows more ambiguous and confusing, though no less entertaining. The ambiguity is necessary for the film to move forward: if the bull-session logic of time-travel were fully explored, and every logical contradiction examined minutely, the narrator might drop out of existence, the opening scene itself might start to loop, and the characters might disappear one by one as the hypothetical past circumstances of their interactions were altered. However, the line is drawn such that the story gets told without bogging down in the inherent paradoxes; instead, the problems with crossing time paths pop up just enough to keep things interesting -- which is guaranteed to happen when the past and present instances of each character start to do more than simply observe each other from a distance.
The first Doppelgaenger appearance is shown by Abe to Aaron; Abe wanted to gradually reveal his already implemented plan to put the full-size machine in a place that met their need for an inconspicuous, windowless, climate-controlled home for the device. He decided on the local storage-rental facility (which drew some laughs from the audience). Through binoculars, he allows Aaron a glimpse of his alter ego passing through the doors of the facility with an oxygen tank.
A second machine soon lets both characters travel back and forth simultaneously, breathing from oxygen tanks inside their argon-flooded boxes. At first, both characters spend their time in the past isolated in a hotel room, watching TV and eating junk food, slowly convincing themselves that nothing catastrophic seems to result, that the world goes on just as it always has. Their caution gives way to optimism, and they come up with an easier way to make Big Money: look up stock results in the present day at a small-town library where they're unlikely to interact with anyone they know, and buy index funds shares -- in the recent past -- in funds they know are about to rise. (With index funds, they realize, the gains would be less conspicuous than single stocks, despite the tempation for quicker gains.)
The pair start living killingly long days; 24 hours, of course, have to be accounted for in the world of conventional time, and the rest in the recent past. By carpooling and calling in sick days, they contrive ways to conceal the double life.
If your system of belief suspension allows you to enjoy the movie so far, things get even more interesting. Despite their attempts to simply keep a low profile, avoid conversations with people they might see in their ordinary life, and so on, Aaron and Abe inevitably let their guard down, and then choose to ignore caution altogether when it means (they think) saving a life.
The interactions of past selves and present selves grows more sinister, and eventually downright treacherous. Who (and when) each character really is gets ever more difficult to sort out, for the characters as well as for the audience. The filmmakers have a clever idea of how a motivated and unscrupulous time-traveler might try to resolve the problem of tangling different time slices.
I suspect Primer will catch on, whether or not it soon reaches wide release. It's edgy in the same way as The Conversation . Primer comes much closer to the mind-tweaking of a Philip K. Dick story than this year's Paycheck did; while Paycheck was actually based on a Dick short story, it was dolled up and stretched for the big screen and in the process lost the original story's spare feel.
The technical goofs (some rough editing in spots, and an orangish cast, at least in the print shown in Portland) are easy to look past, and may even increase the creepy noir feeling. (Shane Carruth wrote and directed the film, and produced it on a budget of just $7,000; for that, a few choppy frames are hard to complain about.) The plot, too, has some rough edges (get out your time-travel dilemma blinders, and be prepared for some Star Trek-style technical doublespeak). On the whole, though, Primer is taut, smart, and well worth seeing.