Hello! I'm Tom. I designed a game called Gunpoint, about rewiring things and punching people, and now I'm working on a new one called Heat Signature, about sneaking aboard randomly generated spaceships. Here's some more info on all the games I've worked on, here's the podcast I do, here are the videos I make on YouTube, here are some of the articles I wrote for PC Gamer, and here are two short stories I wrote for the Machine of Death collections.
I use Amazon.co.uk’s DVD rental-by-post thing, which is one where you can keep the DVD as long as you like while you’re subscribed. This is good because they can’t have Primer back yet. After watching it, I spent forty minutes reading Wikipedia’s superb dissection of the film’s nine distinct timelines, featuring eleven iterations of the two main characters and a flow chart, then I watched it again with the director’s commentary on. Then I watched it again. Craig raises the objection that something ought to be comprehensible to the human mind on first viewing, and it’s true that this is not. I have a certain amount of time for enjoyably dumb films, but to me this is what entertainment should be: something beyond you, not pandering to you, something that both needs and deserves to be explored and understood.
It’s written by, directed by, produced by, scored by, edited by, partly filmed by and stars a former engineer who’d never written, directed, produced, scored, edited, partly filmed or acted in a film before, for $7,000, with a crew of six and only one trained actor. Its creator’s mum and dad supplied the food. And after watching it, you have to wonder why anyone needs more than that to make a film that doesn’t call for any particular special effects, because none of it really shows. It’s set in real locations which are free and appropriate, mostly with available light which makes it look realistic, and most of the people are people rather than actors, which makes them more convincing because actors don’t act like people anyway. It took two-hundred and fifty-six people and five million dollars to make Memento, a similarly stark and intricate film, and I’m not sure why.
It helps that Primer is about a couple of hi-tech engineers who run a tiny electronics business from their garages on top of their day jobs. In case the thing about timelines earlier didn’t give it away, it’s about time-travel. But it’s unique among time-travel movies in being almost entirely convincing, in about three ways:
1. If time-travel is ever discovered, it will be discovered like this. In Primer it’s a side-effect of a tweaked version of an existing type of machine, and they almost don’t notice it does it. It’s only by chance that one of them stumbles across the fact that the Weeble whose weight they’ve been successfully reducing has accumulated six years’ worth of mildew in its brief time inside. A long and quite slow-moving chunk of the film leads up to this in a very natural way, and the cautious excitement of intelligent nerds making something work is so well-invoked that I found myself quite thrilled when just they got this high-temperature superconductor to work at all, let alone travel through time.
2. This actually makes sense. It effortlessly explains all three usual objections to time-travel scenarios: a) Why haven’t we seen travellers from the future already? The furthest these machines can take you back is to the moment you switched them on. b) Why don’t you appear in empty space when you come out in your destination time, given that your starting point was elsewhere on the Earth’s orbit? You stay physically within these machines as you travel back in time, and you do travel back in time rather than teleport to a specific earlier point: you live backwards in the box while the rest of the world lives forwards. And c) Whatever you do in the past will already have been done in the past, removing the reason for you to have gone back in the first-place. Here, changing the past changes the past of the timeline you’re now in, which is no longer the same as the one you came from. It’s still useful because you can live in this new one, and your self here is planning on getting in a time-travel box which will remove him from it.
3. It’s not glamourous. They don’t whoop and jump around the room when it works. There’s no montage where they win the lottery and get drunk. It’s a hard, weird process to go back: you have to spend as much time as you want to travel inside an argon-flooded coffin, and there are side-effects. These guys try it for six hours a day, make measured profits on the stock market, and carefully isolate themselves from their contemporary dupes.
The plot itself is focussed exclusively on the use of these devices and the relationship between the friends who invented them. There are wives, children, friends and an outside character who plays an enormously important role later on, but none of them get more than a minute of screentime, and we never even find out why the outside character does what he does – simply because the two friends themselves don’t either. That level of focus is essential to detail the incredibly dense web of events that unfold over just a few days of traditional time, and probably only a week or so from the perspective of the most time-travelled character (whose identity would be a huge spoiler at this point).
Zeno Cosini: I saw it at the ICA at the end of last year. It was in a double Bill with La Jetee, which is the film Terry Gilliam adapted to make Twelve Monkeys. Primer was great. About a dozen of us talked about it in the pub afterwards, and whilst we'd all enjoyed ourselves, no two people agreed EVEN REMOTELY about what had actually happened in the film.
bob_Arctor: Sounds cool. Question: do they meet themselves in the past, if you see what I mean. Can they meet themselves, can they double up by getting in the time machine with themselves, and meet a third?
Grill: It's a great film. Though the nomenclature they use in that Wikipedia explanation is very confusing - numbering people by the number of exits they've made, rather than whether they're the original, duplicate, or triple at a given time.
craigp: It's true - i r dumb. I think, perhaps, a comfortable warning would have sufficed about what I was about to experience. I mean, I knew I liked Donnie Darko, but had no clue to it's meaning until the director's commentary. If I know ahead of time I'll be baffled I'm much more comfortable with it.
I think it's a movie that enjoys a good prodding: I enjoyed it more after reading Wikipedia than when I was watching it.
Tom Francis: Bob: yep, but they're sensible enough to try to avoid it. At first. Later the relationships between instances of the same person get wonderfully insane. I could have happily watched uncomprehendingly for another hour as the complexities come to a boil and the batshit stuff starts happening.
Grill: I actually liked that naming convention once I got my head around it, partly because it reflects a theme of the film. Throughout there's this idea that whoever's gone back the most is the one on top of things, and the other one's just a patsy playing into his hands. So seeing at a glance that A is one up on B gives it a bit of social context that makes it easier to keep track of.
Jason L: You obviously cannot have failed to read http://www.primermov... ...story.html , but I nevertheless want to attach it here - primarily because I love the bit about a trained maths nerd deciding to, essentially, treat the process of filmmaking as an equation to be solved or a cryptographic ciphertext. And succeeding.
My Favourite Games Of 09, by Tom Francis: [...] Braid Time-travelling platformer. I get irritated with time travel movies, Primer excepted. No! He wouldn’t fade from the photo, idiots! He’d either never have been [...]