Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The time-travel rom-com About Time and time-travel family movie Free Birds have us revisiting older, better time-travel movies.
Time travel generally gets depicted in the movies as a form of magic. Characters might toss around jargon like “wormhole” and “flux capacitor,” but the idea is basically “abracadabra!” Almost without exception, the journey itself is instantaneous. Shane Carruth’s mind-bending Primer is having none of that. The time machine that its start-up wonks, Aaron (Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan), accidentally invent in Aaron’s garage obeys the laws of physics (apart from the minor detail of impossibility). In order to travel back in time for, say, eight hours, they have to actually spend eight full hours in the machine—which means they can’t go back any further than the instant the machine was first switched on, and eventually have to spend days lying in a box with an oxygen tank to reach that crucial moment. That it’s such a physically exhausting process plays a significant role in the film’s notoriously byzantine, recursive plot, which is so difficult to parse, even after several viewings, that fans have drawn up insanely detailed charts.
Truth be told, those charts are unnecessary. Everything that happens in Primer makes logical sense if one takes the trouble to work it out, but the feeling of disorientation it initially produces is intentional. Even before the weirdness begins, its characters speak to each other in a rush of technical shorthand that’s all but incomprehensible to viewers who aren’t engineers of some kind. Aaron and Abe decide to use their time machine to make a killing on the stock market, but when Aaron asks Abe (who makes the first journey back—or does he?) what the company whose shares they’re buying actually makes or does, Abe has no idea. All that matters is that the price will go up. Shot on a shoestring budget and running a compact 77 minutes, the film is a cautionary tale about the nature of discovery, featuring protagonists who stumble onto something world-changing only to employ it for petty, ultimately ludicrous ends. As its version of time travel stubbornly insists, however, there are no shortcuts.