What can I say, it wouldn’t have been much of a marathon if it was short. That’s right, I’m still talking about the movies I caught on Nextflix a couple of months ago, in one long epic movie-watching binge while my family was out of town and I had undisputed control of the remote. And this time, it’s indie sci-fi movie ‘Primer’.
What everyone usually talks about when they talk about ‘Primer’ is the epic head-fuck twist in the third act that suddenly makes you re-evaluate everything you thought was going on in the entire movie, and that makes you realize that everything you imagined you understood is in fact something completely different. I won’t spoil that twist, because it’s something that everyone should decide for themselves whether they want to know beforehand, but I did have it spoiled for me. And I don’t mind, because it means I was able to concentrate on what the movie was about instead of what was happening in it.
Because ‘Primer’ isn’t a movie about time travel in the way that most time travel movies are about time travel. ‘Primer’ is a movie about the way that big technological advances aren’t made by people who are necessarily well-equipped to consider the ethical and moral consequences of the discoveries, and the way that the people who wind up in a position to control those discoveries are the ones who exploit them most ruthlessly and not the people who created them or the people who could make the best use of them. It’s about the way that people who think that their friendship will survive business endeavours generally get exploited by the people who don’t much care one way or the other, and it’s also about the way that the pioneers in any new science are taking risks that they aren’t even aware of. (The scene where the main characters realize that they’re developing hand tremors and they don’t even know why…or how much worse they’ll get…is tremendously affecting.)
And it’s also a movie about time travel. But it’s a peculiarly practical one. The main characters spend a lot of time theorizing about how the time travel they’ve invented might work, but a lot of their knowledge comes from painful trial and error. At one point, a character shows up that they assume must be from the future, then collapses into a coma. Do they show him the time machine in the future, and send him back? Does he collapse because they never show him the time machine, creating a fatal paradox? The main characters don’t know, and they never find out. Unlike most time travel movies, and very much like in the real world, ignorance of the laws of physics is no defence against them.
There’s a lot that’s challenging about ‘Primer’–it’s a movie that makes very few concessions to watchability, and it can be very dry and perversely technical. This isn’t a popcorn movie by any stretch. But if you’re patient and willing to let the film unfold, it’s probably the most interesting documentary about imaginary technology you’ll ever see.