“Here’s a spoiler: YOU WILL DIE ALONE.” — Triumph the Insult Comic Dog
On Sunday, D and I watched Primer (2004), an ambitious but flawed time-travel story that’s too clever for its own good. The first act is too long, it goes off the rails in the middle of act two, and never quite recovers from the subsequent tailspin; the third and final act should have been tension-filled instead of deflating. (I blame the clinical voiceover.) For me, it crosses a very fine line: Movies I want to see more than once are good. Movies I need to see more than once, simply to make sense of them, are annoying.
In hindsight, I should have realized what I was in for during the first five minutes of the movie. It starts with four characters sitting around a dining room table, talking shop. But they speak as if they’re in an indie movie, which they are– i.e., in dialogue that’s supposed to sound “natural” but never quite does. (D picked up on it sooner than I did, saying: “This should sound like a GC conversation, but it doesn’t.”) They’re trying too hard to appear as if they’re not trying too hard.
And seriously, even more implausible than the time travel: two engineers wearing button-down shirts and neckties on their day off? Not in a million years.
I acknowledge that there’s an audience for this type of thing– hell, it won two awards at Sundance, ghod knows how– and the premise is bold and innovative, but it wasn’t supported by the story. Which is a shame, because the temporal mechanics actually work, after you get past the initial hand-waving. This could have been a great movie. Memento, a similar shattered-timeline narrative, held together much better and was fully comprehensible after a single viewing.
As a short story or novella, Primer would belong in Analog, but the way it was put together as a movie, it just doesn’t work. It’s probably still worth a viewing if you’re a science fiction geek, if only for the Big Idea. Perhaps I just thought the characters should have been demonstrably smarter than they were; I have the same problem with a lot of shows. YMMV.