RogerBW's Blog

Primer 12 September 2022

2004 science fiction horror, dir. Shane Carruth, David Sullivan: IMDb / allmovie. Uh-oh, we've invented time travel.

This is a famously complicated film; there's someone on IMDb who reckons that the whole thing is a deliberately obscure con-trick, along the lines of my reaction to Mulholland Drive. And certainly there are elements that contribute to that, such as both significant characters (Aaron and Abe) having names that begin with the same letter. But, as an SF reader who is already familiar with Feynman diagrams, I didn't find the film's premise or imaginary tech confusing; what did cause occasional hiccups was non-diegetic elements, like a step back four days in time which the people doing it are entirely aware of but which isn't clearly signalled to the audience.

But unlike Mulholland Drive I felt there was something to reward analysis here, and that thing is specifically "when causality falls apart, it really doesn't make sense to view things in linear time any more, even your own experiential time".

These are probably the most realistically-portrayed engineers I've seen on film: they don't take ages explaining things to each other when they already know them, and they jump quickly from one idea to its implications and the next idea. Sadly realistically, they're also moral idiots (and clearly not SF readers, because this sort of thing has been written about in SF for years): their first reaction to time travel is to try to make money off it. (Note how many techies get involved in extreme politics, particularly if they can be brought to believe that their success is due solely to their own intelligence rather than having anything to do with their comfortable upbringings.) But what the film does beautifully is to point out that while they're considering whether it would be all right to do this again, it's too late, because they-from-the-future have "already" taken steps that are affecting them-now.

There are small details that irk: why does Abe go along with the become-a-hero plan when he's already very hesitant about time travelling at all? Why doesn't anything ever come of the nerve damage subplot? But the film doesn't outstrip its budget: if it's sometimes a bit out of focus, or muddy in the sound department, it still has the sense to tell a story that happens in garages and industrial units and self-storage rooms, because that's where it would be filmed. Similarly the actors (and for most of them this was a first and only acting job) look plausibly like people, because there's no Big Star to look like an actor rather than a normal person, and thus cause mental dislocation as one looks from one to the other.

I was reminded of the anime Steins;Gate – this isn't time travel as an excuse to get to where the real action will happen, it's time travel that tells its own story and isn't afraid to get its hands dirty.

If you want more of my witterings, you should listen to Ribbon of Memes.

See also:
Mulholland Drive (2001)

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