Techland Screening Room: Primer – The Physics of Friendship

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29:10 – The single most shocking image of the film. Abe prepares Aaron for a sight that will blow his mind. A copy of Abe is already running around Earth, and after Abe (version 1.0) hands Aaron a pair of binoculars, he starts to realize that this experiment has jumped the shark. The life-size version of their machine has already been built, time travel is already happening, and Abe has just seen a copy of himself without destroying the space-time continuum. More than that: It’s clear that this friendship has already broken down. Abe’s moved forward alone, without Aaron’s consent, and is clearly using the machine for his own purposes.

33:00 – Aaron’s first day of time traveling. “What about the lottery?” they ask. These guys are looking to use their technology to make a quick buck, and Aaron demands that Abe walk through everything he did in his first time travel experience. So, true to what we’ve seen in earlier scenes, Abe spells it out linearly and logically, and we start to witness one of the most convincing depictions of how a time traveler could do it all: Get rich, defy the laws of physics, all the while remaining active in his present life and avoiding the destruction of the universe.

51:10 – The plan cracks. After growing closer through their time travel, and mastering their little one-day arc of unplugging from the grid and venturing into the past, Aaron’s cell phone rings. He has brought it with him by mistake. They debate as to whether their copies are in the box, or if they might pick up the phone call instead. This is their first major, lazy mistake.

56:10 – Greed, and breakdown. Aaron’s awoken in the middle of the night by Abe, and they debate adding an additional early-morning time travel shift to their daily routine. Greed is leading them to act irrational. And as they pull away from the house in the car, they catch a fleeting glimpse of someone parked out in front of Aaron’s hosue. Someone who shouldn’t be there. Who starts following them. Who was clean-shaven just a few hours ago, but who now has several days’ worth of stubble on his face.

Who is this, and why does this matter? I don’t think we are supposed to be able to fully answer this question. (though there is one Primer fan out there who has constructed an elaborate flow-chart, following the logic) It’s not the particulars that are important, but the larger conclusion: Something has broken down in this system. Someone is tracking them. Someone is traveling through time just as they are. Their orderly, logical framework has collapsed.

73:00 – The shattering of the dream. We see in a final montage just how dysfunctional the whole system’s become. Copies of Abe are running around, locked in closets and attics. Aaron is no longer certain what’s part of his time travel system and what’s not. The two men meet at an airport, and the friendship implodes in front of our eyes. They part ways. And then we see a feverish Aaron leading what looks like a crew of South American workers through a warehouse, in the midst of construction. What is he building? (Carruth told us what he thinks is happening, but I don’t think we’re really supposed to know) He is now free of his wife, child and best friend. And I think this is exactly where he wants to be.

Closing Thoughts:

Primer is dubbed by many as a story about time travel. But I think it’s a story about focus, discovery and tragedy. It’s about the work that goes into creating and understanding something new, the thrill of basking in the glory of being the first in the world to conquer the unconquerable, and then the fallout that occurs when a friendship falls apart.

It’s this dimension of friendship and trust, however, that instills the film with something more than just scientific hypotheticals. Primer is really about two smart collaborators teaming up on the biggest project of their lives, and then struggling to reconcile the fact that they attained their goal, but lost each other in the process. Emotionally, it’s not all that different from something like Goodfellas, where a bunch guys scale the heights and lose their conscience in the process. But in Primer, we have the story being told through an original formula, using a different sort of language, and the stakes are far bigger than who shot who, or what mob guys got made.

The power of the time machine may drive half the film, but it’s the emotional fallout the propels the latter half. And that’s why Primer is more than just the theoretical; it is the theory put into practice, the ultimate power that tugs at the core of an unshakable friendship. There is trust here and promises are made, but then the ultimate power on the planet scrambles up all those allegiances, vows and commitments. Primer offers the rush of a sci-fi adventure and then the heartache of a lost love affair. And it’s the emotions, not the physics jargon, that makes this a great movie.

Now – it’s your turn: Post your comments! What do you think of Primer? What are your favorite scenes? What flaws do you see in my argument? What say you?

Techland’s interview with Shane Carruth will be posted next week. See where the movie stacked up on our Five Most Underrated Sci-Fi Movie Masterpieces. Return next Thursday for the next Techland Screening Room title.

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