Primer is a flick I found on Netflix last night. It is a babblefest kind of oxford shirt wearing movie - Pi meets Good Will Hunting. It's very intelligent, rather like Plano TX is intelligent. It is emotionally spartan except for the emotion of stress, and it has a kind of odd energy to it, like its characters, starting with four and stripped down to two of a friendship/partnership/co-conspiratorship. Somewhere in Primer is a great story, but it got mangled in the telling, and so it is a film to own and watch four times until you figure out the timeline. But you can't and you won't. Which is exactly the cool point.
What if you invented a time machine that could take you back? An hour, a day. What if you could do it? How do you work your way out of your life? If you're the kind of engineering entrepreneurial bootstrapper who is young a co-dependent on your engineering colleagues living on the verge of suburban stability just above the reaches of semi-loser friendships, then you are in the kind of claustrophobic reality of Primer. And in that regard there is no escape, only betrayal.
But how does the betrayal unravel? What about time paradoxes? Well the first thing about secret time travel is that it takes time. To run a 24 hour day in which you revisit 8 hours takes at least 36 hours. And you have to spend 8 of those hours away from yourself locked away so you can't re-influence what you're doing the second time around. You can pull it off for a while but then an emergency happens - the kind of thing you wish you had a time machine for in the first place, and then the emergency takes on a life of its own which you can't really control and Groundhog Day becomes a nightmare because you have a partner and your partner is your friend and the two of you can't keep a secret from each other which is that one of you is trying to save the other's life.
Get it? Of course you don't, and neither do I. The exposition in a time travel movie is very difficult especially one like this in which there is nested time travel. But if you could, imagine this. You and I decide to get rich in the stock market by day trading a day we've already experienced. OK. So we both go into our time travel machines and live from the notes we took the prior day we do the trading, and we get rich. But what if, unbeknownst to you, I've already done this time travel twice, so my doing the get rich thing is the second time. I'm just playing you because I know that in your altered future, somebody is trying to kill you because you're rich. And so now I have to time travel twice to change something that we've already changed and pretend that I'm only traveling the first time. But the entire thing is so mind-blowing and stressful that it's making me physically ill. Plus there are all the unknowables, plus chaos.
That's the core that makes the story compelling, but there's no way to expose and express all that well without talking to the camera, and nobody talks to the camera in Primer. In fact, the clipped and interrupted way that people like these engineers talk to each other is part of the chaos of the film.
Anyway. If you have ever been a young engineer, or entrepreneur, then this is a film you must see. It's an excellent thought exercise in causality and credulity, but as a movie, it hurts to watch if you only intend to watch it once.