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Primer

dir: Shane Carruth
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For a contemporary sci-fi film, this is going to strike some people as downright false advertising.

There are no explosions, car chases, gigantic metropolises, shiny robots, Will Smiths or Spielbergs to be seen for miles around. So most regular muggles aren’t going to think it’s “real” sci-fi anyway.

For “real” sci-fi fans, that should be enough to pique their curiousity. Of course, when I mention time travel playing the central role in the story, they’re going to switch off and go back to masturbating over Japanese cartoon porn. God knows you’re not a real nerd ‘til you’ve done that.

Time travel has been used and abused by so many and for so long that it makes most of us role our eyes heavenward in disgust. Even nerds.

When it’s used well, as with Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, the details of the how and the why of the time travel are insignificant compared to what it adds to the story. Seeing Abraham Lincoln, Socrates, Sigmund Freud and Genghis Khan striding around the San Dimas mall and interacting with late 80s Californians is worth all the silliness and Keanu Reeveses involved.

Anyone who’s ever been a fan of any of the major science fictional televisual nerdfests that have clogged up airwaves over the last forty years knows genre shows use time travel to liven up otherwise boring plotlines as often as I use tomato sauce to disguise the taste of my own cooking. In other words, it’s all the bloody time.

I can’t really say I’m sick of it, because that would be like saying I’m sick of tomato sauce or commas or semi-colons. They’re part of the fabric of civilisation without which the whole tissue-thin construction would fray and eventually collapse.

Used cheesily, time travel is an excuse to hide the fact that it’s easier just to have Our Heroes go back to some time and hang out with Mark Twain or Julius Caesar rather than come up with an original story.

Used intelligently, time travel can be about something deeper and more fundamental about human nature, which is supposed to be the point of good sci-fi (as well as stretching the boundaries of human imagination). The granddaddy of time travel stories is still (until someone goes back in time and changes it) Wells’s The Time Machine, which is essentially about regret.

Time travel appeals to us because it’s really about the impulse we have at some stage in our lives where we wish we could just go back a few moments or decades and do something differently at very specific moments. Usually these moments are permanently etched into out minds as times when we royally fucked up. I call these moments “weekends”.

Supremely handsome Australian singer / songwriter / jar of Vegemite Paul Kelly had that song “If I Could Start Today Again”, where a guy desperately prays to be given his day back, to undo the thing he’s done, unsay the things he’s said. Of course the song is more about domestic abuse than uncertainty principles and causality paradoxes, but you get the picture, don’t you?

In Primer, two engineers, Aaron (Shane Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan), accidentally create a machine with amazing potentialities. Being engineers, as brilliant as they are at the theoretical / technical stuff, their genius ends where they’re supposed to be figuring out what to do with a machine that allows them to travel backwards in a very convoluted manner.

There isn’t a flux capacitor, or some deep rinse spin cycle on what they create. They start off being able to go back a number of hours, with the intention being making a fortune off the stock market. From there, things start getting complicated. The main reason is because the motivations of the people involved go beyond mere greed or correcting some mistake in the past / present / future.

I don’t mean complicated the way relationships get complicated after you convince your long time partner to have a threesome. I don’t mean complicated the way tax returns used to be until I decided just to make shit up.

I mean complicated in a way that hurts your goddamn brain. When you realise how complicated you mutter a barely audible “aw fuck” under your breath, but that doesn’t mean you understand it. Even after looking up explications and explanations on this here venerable Interrnett, I still think it’s an impenetrable muddle of a film, perhaps more than it needed to be.

The flick is 77 minutes long, and it cost director, screenwriter, producer, cinematographer, editor, composer, production designer and “star” Shane Carruth $7000 to make. So you’re not watching it for the visuals or the scene composition. It looks like it was filmed on a mobile phone.

But that’s okay. The performances by everyone except our two main tech heads are perfunctory at best. The performances by our leads are okay, but nothing nut-shatteringly awesome. So you’re not watching it for the acting either.

The ‘story’ as such, is where the money’s at. The increasing complexity arising from the actions of Abe and Aaron are fascinating, despite the manner in which it just keeps getting more and more muddled. Analysed after the fact, with help, it does make a weird kind of sense.

This is no help to the poor audience. Friends of mine who endured the film at the recent Melbourne International Film Festival didn’t understand it at all and hated it. I thought I understood pretty much what had happened by the end of the film, but after reading some of the director’s comments online I figured my “vague” idea as to what really happened was my attempt to hide the fact from myself that I was up clueless creek without any clue-shaped paddles.

In some ways I’m easier on films like this because I’m just so grateful for a flick that isn’t like the tens of thousands of other flicks I’ve seen thus far. Usually these weird lo-fi sci-fi flicks come from the anti-matter version of the United States known as Canada.

I’ve heard people compare it to Darren Aronofsky’s Pi, and I have to say, they’re barking up the wrong sub-atomic particle pathway / wavelength. Pi had a completely different set of agendas going on, a great Clint Mansell soundtrack, actual acting, an allegory about sexual dysfunction, and Aronofsky’s distinctive visual style.

Primer has none of that, but it at least has a corker of a central idea and a vertigo-inducing resolution.

In a harsher mood I’d say the lack of characterisation and narrative clarity damns this film and is an insult to any audience, whether they’re sci-fi literate or not. And that once I understood what had happened, I’d still have thought: “Eh.”

In my current mood, I’d say Shane Carruth deserves plenty of praise for getting this puppy finished, and the limitations of the medium are surmounted by the imagination and determination involved in telling a story like no other. Or few others. And as puzzles go, it’s far more interesting than a Rubik’s cube, or getting the packaging off of a DVD, or using those machines to validate your ticket on public transport. And it may be more satisfying.

But if you have no stomach for convoluted, grainy, pretentious, deliberately obscure movies then steer well clear.

8 times I’d go back through time and punch Ray Bradbury in the nuts so he’d never write the short story A Sound of Thunder out of 10.

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“Are you hungry? I haven't eaten since later this afternoon.” – Primer

I know I'm not the milk and honey kind
Today I proved it true
When the red mist falls around my eyes
I know not what I do
Please give me back today
And I won't say the things I said
Or do that thing I did
Every minute, every hour
The replay's just the same
And I can't stand the shame
Oh let me start today again – Paul Kelly

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