Jun 7, 2005

a primer for primer

I've decided not to fully explain this movie. For one it's just too hard to explain without a huge flowsheet and diagram. Secondly it's kind of pointless to understanding what is going on unless you are really anal. And also, thankfully, someone has already done the hard work. That diagram however won't explain anything unless you understand a few aspects of the movie. That I will do here.

Let me first say that this is an incredibly complex movie. For that the director should be applauded. I've yet to see a movie that made my brain work so hard. Having said that and read a few comments from the author I'm not sure if he was successful in what he set out to do. Even before there was a sci fi or time travel idea there was an idea in Carruth's head to explore the concept of trust and how the risk level of a situation can affect that trust negatively even when actively bad intentions don't exist. While he does this, the emotional impact that you and the actors should have from that drop in trust doesn't come across as intensely as it should. And that is mainly because you don't feel enough warm fuzzies between the two characters to begin with. There's no sense of friendship or camaraderie at the beginning. When that is supposed to go away there isn't a feeling of loss or feeling of empathy for the characters. That's unfortunate but it's still an incredibly interesting movie.

I'll say it again. Christ this is a hard movie to understand. I mentioned before that every camera angle is thought out. The same goes for the dialogue. You really cannot let your brain rest for one second during this movie. Unfortunately I don't watch movies with that kind of intensity so it took a while for me to capture all the information needed. There are times when if you miss a word, phrase or sentence, you risk blowing your whole understanding of the movie. Character names are sometimes mentioned once and then when they are referenced later you're at a loss to explain who they are discussing. Small turns of phrases can slip by if you don't pay attention - "I haven't had anything to eat since later today" or something muttered under the breath, "Hi Brad." There are also small visual clues that have no meaning the first time through (e.g., ear pieces). The only place that you don't need to entirely hunker down is during the beginning explanations of the science of the time travel. It's largely meaningless to the story but done somewhat convincingly due to Carruth's completist nature. It's mainly about superconduction.

The first important thing to get is the story is told from Abe's (the blonde guy) perspective. We only learn about what happens with Aaron (brunette, Carruth) through flashbacks and his voiceover. There are quite a few loose ends as a result of this. He doesn't know so we don't know. So don't think you can understand everything.

The second important thing is that there are multiple Abe's and Aaron's. I'll explain below how you get multiple instances of the characters. To be specific there are 2 or more Abe's and 3 or more Aaron's. The reason there could be more is that Abe and the narrator (Aaron) don't know all the events. There could have been many more travel backs. This is alluded to in the plotline. And don't assume that when the movie gets going you're going to know when all of a sudden it's a different Aaron or Abe. Remember this is time travel. The first Abe or Aaron on the screen could be the second. Assuming anything will lead to wrong answers. You need to listen to the dialogue and pickup on the visual clues (facial growth, ear pieces) to figure out who is who.

A third thing I had a hard time with was when someone's face was somewhat obscured and you couldn't tell who it was. I naturally assumed it was the other partner. In general if you can't see someone's face well, it is most likely not the other partner but an alternate version of the person you can see well. This probably wasn't intentional but Carruth would have a hard time making duplicates look convincing on his budget.

Now time travel. The thing that's needed to understand the movie is the type of mechanics Carruth employs for time travel. Given this is science fiction, how time travel and the time machine works can manifest itself in a number of ways. So understanding how Carruth implements it is important. In this particular movie time travel is facilitated by their time machine in the following way. You turn on the machine, get into it at a later time, stay in the machine for the same amount of time you left the machine on and when you come out you have traveled back in time to the point when you turned the machine on. In other words,
  • Turn time machine on at t=0
  • Let machine run for X hours
  • Get into machine at t=X
  • Get out X hours later
  • Find yourself at t=0
First, it's clear the machine is a pseudo-single-use machine. You can't reuse it over a time period that you've used it once before unless you are willing to stop your original self from getting into it in the first place. In other words there can be no overlapping trips back unless you stop yourself getting into the box. Think about that one. Use the diagram below if it's tricky.

It's also clear to see that this time machine doesn't allow you to travel back to a time before the machine was invented. You only can go back to when a machine was first turned on. To my mind this is a novel approach Carruth is using. The implications are interesting as well. If you look at the diagram below it's clear to see that two of you exist during the time frame from when the machine is turned on to when you first enter. Both before and after that period only one of you exists. Unless(!) self #2 does something to self #1 to stop them from getting inside the machine. In this case, under Carruth's physics, two of you exist past the point when you enter the machine. In other words, going back and killing yourself doesn't make you disappear.

In the movie the two main characters are smart enough to set a timer on the machine such that it doesn't turn on until after they've had a chance to leave. Watching yourself come out of a box as soon as you turn it on would be creepy. They are also smart enough to hang in a hotel room while the machine is running so it's unlikely that anyone will spot both instances of themselves by accident.

It's also interesting to see what happens to a viewer who doesn't participate in the time travel. Imagine some person standing off to the side while this whole thing goes on. During the first run through the overlapping timeline, you shake that person's hand. You then get into your time machine and travel back. Now you disrupt events. You kidnap your original self and tie him/her up in a corner. You then don't do anything. Reality for the impartial external observer is that his hand was never shaken. At least in Carruth's reality. The last event to happen, takes precedence.

That's about all you need to know to watch the film. A comment on one of the many Primer forums made a very good point though. If you are going to watch it, get some friends to watch it with. Smart friends. The post-game analysis is probably required to understand it well. Luckily it's just over an hour so you can actually squeeze in two viewings quickly. Also keep your hand on the remote for quick rewinding. And turn on the subtitles so you can catch every word.

And finally a couple of esoteric points. I like how Abe's last name backwards is regret. And Abe (Abraham) being the real inventor of the machine is Hebrew for "Father of a Multitude". Aaron, brother of Moses, was the one who made a golden calf to show the people a visible sign of god. Like Moses, he was denied final entry into the promised land. Also the beginnings of their names are interesting. Aaron/Abe. Aa/Ab. Aaron is the dominant 'gene' of a physical expression. The primer of the two. As well as being an "A-end" and a "B-end" as in the movie. Clever.

Some good resources:
Explanation by Carruth
Visual timeline(s)
Primer forums
Scene by scene (he does miss some key points though)


Francis Shanahan said...

Hi Chooky, what did I miss?

C. Fuzzbang said...

You show time travel begins just before Abe is on the roof of the building. But watch when he wakes up near the beginning after the fade to black. He mutters under his breath, "Hi Brad" and then walks out and says, "Hi Brad". He then realizes the door is about to be knocked on by Aaron and almost opens it before he the knock comes. He clearly has been through this once before. This is the first instance we know they've time travelled. There's a couple others. I'll have to read through your writeup again. Good writeup though. I thought I was going to have to rent that movie for months. Now I just refer back to your page.

Francis Shanahan said...

yeah, I saw that but the director's commentary sort of led me to think this was not time travel. Could interpret it either way though and that's what makes it such a great movie.
rock on bro,

Anonymous said...

Hey man thanks for this explanation, I saw the movie last night but was definitely confused by how the time travel was working. Yet i still enjoyed it. I thought I was going to have watch it a dozen times, now I'll probably just watch it again tonight.

Andrew said...

Brilliant geek-out analysis. Thanks. That made my day.

A.C. said...

I'm reading everything. I knew Aaron was in the attic, ha. The book, A Primer Universe explained most of it. Lots of hidden references and clues like Star City. Loved this ending more than Inception. A true cult film.

C. Fuzzbang said...

Would you happen to have a link to the book, "A Primer Universe". I couldn't find it. Thx.