Part of me really longs to enjoy hard science fiction. After all, the chosen subgenre of H.G. Wells and Isaac Asimov has already stood the test of time, with some of its best works surviving several generations. For the life of me, though, I just can't muster enthusiasm for book-long treatises on how to terraform Mars or the niceties of hanging a space elevator in Earth's orbit. Such things may interest the super-smart set, but I'm a lowly man with a bachelor's in English and a yen for compelling tales about interesting people. Page after page of technical jargon makes the elephants dance on my eyelids. That's why writer/director Shane Carruth's debut film, Primer, proved such fascinating viewing: It makes hard SF human.
Aaron and Abe are going nowhere fast. Low-paying, full-time jobs keep them cash-strapped and time-poor, a deadly combination for young entrepreneurs trying to create their own company. Aaron's long-suffering wife doesn't mind the two forever tinkering the garage, but they're getting tired of selling self-built computer hardware for abysmally low margins. So Abe begins designing a new project, a weight-reduction machine so intricate and expensive it has Aaron cannibalizing his car for parts. Does it work? That's what Aaron wants to know, especially after a test run yields bizarre readings on a watch and a strangely advanced fungal growth. Abe thinks it does. He takes Aaron to a field near a self-storage facility, and what does Aaron see? Another Abe walking into the warehouse, an exact duplicate of the man sitting beside him. See, the machine doesn't reduce weight. It shifts a person back in time. Now they only have to decide what to do with it. ...
"Frankly, anybody who claims he fully understands what's going on in Primer after seeing it just once is either a savant or a liar," says Esquire reviewer Mike D'Angelo. "Trying to get a fix on the film is like following the path of one blade on a high-speed ceiling fan; give it a shot if you like, but don't be surprised if you wind up very dizzy." Indeed, I'll admit that I resorted to Wikipedia a time or two while penning the above summary. Carruth keeps non-techincal exposition to a minimum, preferring instead to toss around engineering jargon that nearly made my eyes cross. Once both of them get into the machine -- no real spoiler there, right? -- things get even more complicated. Multiple versions of Aaron and Abe begin popping up, inserting themselves into earlier iterations' money-making and power-grabbing schemes. The good folks at io9 even resorted to a flowchart to keep the proceedings straight.
Sounds like everything I'd dislike, right? Not exactly. While all of the technical machinations matter, they aren't the film's sum and substance. That belongs to the characters themselves, their hopes and dreams and the way their lack of personal integrity sabotages them. We see single Abe longing for family life even as Aaron chafes under its restrictive routine. Their first impulse isn't to use the technology to right wrongs, but rather to pad their pockets and tell off their boorish boss. While the complexity swells as Primer progresses, people remain its focus, and the film never forgets to keep hard SF human.
(Picture: CC 2009 by Profound Whatever)