The Rear-View Mirror: Primer (2004)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

I had been sightseeing on foot all day, Nairn’s London in hand, my legs hurt, and I just wanted to sit down and get my bearings back. There was a small movie theatre off Leicester Square, showing a movie I had never heard of. The title was Primer, and the poster showed some kind of cube-shaped contraption with cables coming out, or going in. I couldn’t resist and bought a ticket. It was a very strange movie. There were three, four white-collar guys who had invented a machine that did something technical, and they were sending out free hardware parts in order to get their project financed. It was hard to follow the movie because they talked like real people talked, and there were no subtitles.

Eventually, I realized that the guys themselves were unsure what exactly the machine was supposed to do. They find out that it produces protein – inordinate amounts of it. And then it slowly dawns on them that the machine is actually a device for time travel. The writer and director of Primer, Shane Carruth, who also plays Aaron, took the greatest care with the depiction of time travel. The movie still counts as one of the most accurrate depictions, so much so that Rian Johnson, writer and director of Looper, sent his screenplay to Carruth, asking him to tell him whether the Looper screenplay got time travel right, too. Carruth told Johnson that he had it wrong in almost every aspect.

Primer is not only a movie for eggheads to figure out, which might be fascinating enough, but it’s also a movie about normal, yet interesting people who use and/or abuse the machine for their curiosity and greed, just as some of us would. There is that eternal question about what you would do if you could travel back in time. Who would decline such an opportunity? And yet the whole endeavour is fraught with danger. Abe and Aaron, level-headed, intelligent and eloquent, know this, and yet they give in to temptation in very different ways.

I have to admit that I have not yet figured out the plot, but neither have a lot of people. There are a lot of articles and charts trying to explain the movie, probably as many as about Mulholland Drive or Lost Highway, but the movie’s charm lies in its ability to keep some of its allure because I cannot fully figure it out. Of all the people claiming that this is the best time travel movie of all time, I am pretty sure that not even half of them fully get what happens. Neither do Abe and Aaron.

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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