You think you know what’s going on in this (very**) indie film, you’ve caught yourself up, and then Primer just throws another curve ball at you. Even without the time twisting stuff, the complete lack of flashing arrows (Steven Johnson’s term for the plot clues embedded in movies and TV shows that scream “pay attention, this will be important later!”) left me scratching my head at exactly what happened. Luckily, the Internet to the rescue: a Primer timeline, another timeline, and an extensive visual timeline. Oy, I still don’t get it.
But that’s ok because the science fictiony stuff was actually not as interesting for me as what happened to the characters in the film. I’ve been thinking a lot about choice lately…too much of it, not enough of it, the sudden increase in the ability to determine one’s destiny by controlling choice, and the “normal” state of things where people have very little choice about anything. In Primer, the main characters find themselves in a situation where they can (almost) literally do anything they want with their lives. But instead of opening their lives up to an infinite range of possibilities, they find themselves constrained by their circumstances.
There’s a fractal aspect to human existance in this way…the particular details of any one person’s life may differ from those of another (older, smarter, richer, more powerful, etc. etc.), but the experience from the perspective of each individual is largely the same. Robert Frank touches on this in his essay on How Not to Buy Happiness. Having more power/money/control/experience/etc just may limit your choices as sure as being broke, stupid, powerless, or naive would.
Anyway, if you’re even a little bit of a geek, I’d urge you to check Primer out (it was recently released on DVD). It’s challenging in the way that Memento and Donnie Darko are, pays off in a human way like The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind does, and it gets my highest recommendation.
** Ebert correctly notes that although the film cost ~$7000 to make and that most of the principle photography took place in a garage, “the movie never looks cheap, because every shot looks as it must look.” One of my favorite aspects of the film was the cinematography…reminded me of what a Kubrick film might have looked like on a similarly tight budget.
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