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Let's Tackle the Dragon: Primer

Posted on 24/4/14 by Pete

Blogging for Movie Meanings has some hazards that come along with the job, such as eating lunch with other movie buffs.

There I was in my favorite Mediterranean deli tucking into a brunch of ethnic soul food, and a couple of my friends are buzzing on their tablets and phones as 21st century lunch patrons are wont to do, and one of them drops the dreaded announcement: "Hey, somebody linked Primer on YouTube."

My temperature has raised a degree. I shovel pita bread loaded with hummus into my mouth to avoid saying anything.

Other Friend chimes in, "Oooooh I love that movie! So full of twisted plot logic, it's a real puzzle to unravel, I had to watch it ten times but it's worth it..." On and on. Both friends now turn to me, because they know what I do. I chew my falafel and gaze off into the distance pretending to solve trigonometry equations in my head.

"So, what did you think of it?"

No, no NO! Not again! Blogging for Lyric Interpretations, I had this same problem: People find out you're a music blogger and they always ask if Ozzy Osbourne really bit the head off that bat. I gave up taking the question seriously after awhile and just started prattling that in fact, bats are a rare delicacy in many parts of the world and Ozzy, a gourmand of the first water, knows what wine goes with bat.

Now at Movie Meanings, the 2004 indie hit Primer has become my bat. Everybody asks what you think that movie means, which is useless because no matter what you say, they have their own answer in mind and they'll tell you that you're wrong. Everybody who asks about Primer is a housewife tapping the proverbial rolling pin in her hand, asking where the hell you've been all night. Just grab your pillow and head for the couch right now. There are no right answers.

Like hell there aren't. Sit down, kids, because the oracle is about to tell you the Meaning of Life. But only on the condition that this time, you don't argue. Here's what's going to happen: I'm gonna read this, and you're gonna listen.

In the first place, Primer is a bad, bad, very bad, very very BAD exercise in story-telling. If it weren't, there would be no need for those 6000 charts posted all over the Internet explaining the movie. Good movies don't need charts and manuals and supplementary errata. They tell the story on their own legs. Primer doesn't tell you the story so much as it dumps random scenes over your head and leaves you to figure it out.

And we have the word of writer/director Shane Carruth's own interview with the Village Voice right there to back us up: He says that there are parts deliberately left vague, parts that intentionally don't add up, and parts they never bothered to explain. You're not supposed to solve this movie.

In the second place, Primer deliberately obfuscates itself with techno-babble. You know how on Star Trek when they're in the middle of some zappy-pow space battle and the bridge crew is barking "Reverse the polarity on the photon torpedoes!" and "The chronomotronic matrix is intercepting the aether frumulator!" and you have no idea what the hell it means? Neither do the writers, because it's just random stuff that sounds like what a space ship crew would be saying. That's what Primer does; it buries you under a pile of science jargon with "Tesla coil" this and "superconductor" that, until you have to throw up your hands and go "I'd have to chew up a whole decade of Popular Science back issues just to have the first clue what's going on, but you use Big Words so you must be smart; I'll take your word for it."

As if this weren't bad enough layers of obfuscation, the dialog also suffers from Woody Allen Syndrome: where the characters talk over each other and interrupt each other a lot to sound more realistic, but at the expense of making the thread of the conversations unclear. That's fine in a light-hearted comedy when you're a New York goofball, but in a hard-headed science fiction movie, you're just setting the audience up to fail.

So when the cast of eggheads is standing around drawing on dry erase boards and mumbling about liquid helium, you shouldn't be thinking "I need to keep re-watching this until it makes sense." What you should be thinking is, "This movie is stalling for an extra forty minutes until it gets down to the story, which it doesn't have much of." No, really, the first entire 20 minutes of tweaking with Weeble Wobbles, argon, car batteries, fridge coils, and catalytic converters is just there to say "Once upon a time, there were these Really Smart (TM) garage inventors who were trying to invent something so they could all be rich and famous." Oh, and also "This is a fantasy for neckbeard geeks, as you can tell from the fact that exactly one female has a few lines of supporting dialog."

And that's just the linear parts, before we start jumping into boxes and popping back out a week ago.

So we turn on the box and walk away, go hole up in a motel somewhere playing board games indoors for awhile (gee, a geek fantasy where geeks have to do something that they like to do all the time anyway!), then go back to the box, turn it off, get in, and climb back out only a few seconds after we turned it on. Tada, we can rig the stock market, win the lottery, and otherwise exploit knowledge of the intervening events. This part, we have to admit, is quite clever. It's a nice little hook for the science fiction genre to have a time travel story that tells this part so clear-headedly.

But after we have digested the basic premise, the rest of the story turns into "Now that we have this cool idea, what do we do with it?" Which becomes what little actual plot we have: The two geniuses get into a time travel contest because they're working at cross purposes to each other, and so get into a double-crossing time-hopping contest. Now, like many movies, you have to ignore some logic just to appreciate the cool parts...

See, we have to throw in the subplot about the girlfriend and the investor or else neither character has a goal in all this. So each character has a goal now: One needs to stop all this time travel silliness by going back to the very beginning, the other has to preserve the time travel shenanigans at all costs or else he doesn't save Rachael. These subplots really don't matter; the point is that time travel is dangerous because when humans get it, they tend to become as powerful as minor gods and we all know what absolute power does to you.

Now the movie dissolves into a tap dance of "I thought of it first!" Both characters revealing impossible aces in the hole as they one-up each other, and then other characters get tangled up in all of it. And then what? Nothing, that's what! The whole thing comes to a David Lynch ending right there. We have more holes than we have answers. What's the big garage box for? Whom is Aaron talking to on the phone message? What are all those other Aarons running around in the background up to? Why, for Heaven's sake, does time travel make your ears bleed and your handwriting shaky? Why does it make you pass out? And who the heck eats a muffin with a fork and knife?

That's really all there is to it, less than meets the eye. Which is not to say that it's a bad movie - less entertaining efforts have certainly been done. If I wanted to make a shoestring budget time-hacker movie that would eventually gross six times its production cost, I'd probably do the same thing. There's little clever touches that make the movie special for what little is hinted at: Telling somebody else a joke before you hear somebody else tel it to you in a subsequent scene, or listening to a recorded conversation while you watch the identical conversation play out in front of you and then diverge, because while it's easy to memorize lines to a script, it's a bit harder to make a perfect basketball shot every time.

But seriously, if you've watched the movie enough times to understand all of the above points, there really isn't anything else being told. Sure, you can construct elaborate theories to explain all the background events, but what you're actually doing is half the work for the creators - it was their job to tell you the story, and they told you only parts of it.

Now the last secret of Primer is revealed, and I can go back to polishing off my baba ganouch in peace.

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