Primer (2004) Review

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Four friends have a business making electronic parts, and use the proceeds to fund more ambitious technology protects. While working on what appears to be an anti-gravity device, two of them inadvertently invent a machine which can send things short distances back in time.

It’s hard to use the word “realistic” when talking about a time-travel movie, given that none of us know what ‘real’ time travel would be like, but Primer goes to such lengths not to be frivolous, that realistic, really is the only word that comes to mind.

From the accidental way the devices’ time-bending effects are discovered, to the clunky way it operates, it genuinely feels like, if we were to discover time travel any time soon, this is more than likely how it would operate (at least in its early days).

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There are no fancy dials or slick machines, no “anywhere in time and space” or flashy flaming tyre tracks; indeed, the machine can only send things back, never forward. Once a human-sized device is built, it’s operation is quite cumbersome. In order, for instance, to travel 6 hours back in time, it needs to be switched on, left for 6 hours, switched off, and entered during powering-down. After waiting 6 (subjective) hours in the box, you may exit just after it is switched on (wait any longer and you’ll start going forwards again, but only in real time).

Our engineers decide that the best way to use this limited type of time travel is to game the stock market, however they at least take causality seriously; every day they book a room, disconnect all links to the outside world, and wait indoors (while their future selves, having traveled back to the same time, get about their day, and buy and sell that days biggest movers).

Eventually, of course, something happens during those 6 hours which they find out about before they are due to enter the box; leaving them free to change it… At the risk of changing too much.

As well as the movies handling of causality and the way science gets done, the use of hand-held cameras give a ‘fly on the wall’ feel to most of the movie, while script as a whole adds to the ‘real’ feeling. Many scenes are bursting with realistic sounding technobabble, delivered confidently and casually in a way that really does give the impression of four guys having a day to day conversation about things we just don’t understand (if you’ve ever heard a group of highly qualified people chat about a field you know little or nothing about, you’ll know exactly what I mean).

Told any other way, the story itself would have been thought-provoking, but ultimately dull – it’s the ‘could almost be real’ presentation which lifts the movie to thought-provoking, and fascinating.

It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but if interesting equates to entertaining for you, you could do a lot worse than give this low-budget gem a looksee.

I think my body’s getting used to these 36-hour days.

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