Netflix picks: Primer

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Terminator: Genisys came out with non-linear causality in play, and sorting out the timeline across the series is going to be a doozy. For a primer on everything that can go wrong with time travel, try Primer (2004).

Be warned, this story is complicated and Director/composer/actor/etc. Shane Carruth's storytelling is opaque — it’s a movie to pick at over several viewings. If you're looking for light entertainment, move along, but if you want something to make you think, Primer is worth your while.

Carruth's first movie effort centers around two engineers, Abe (David Sullivan) and Aaron (Carruth). On weekends, they do research and development in Aaron's garage along with two colleagues, Robert (Casey Gooden) and Phillip (Anand Upadhyaya). In their quest to make a high-temperature superconductor, Abe and Aaron stumble onto technology that can send something – or someone – back in time. But Abe and Aaron are working stiffs; for them, ethics was just a class in college. And when you can go back in time, even a few days, your actions have consequences on a new and terrifying scale.

After Abe builds a prototype person-sized time machine, things get messy fast. At first, he and Aaron just use it to cheat at the stock market and make some cash – a safe, low-risk exploitation — but it doesn't last, and Abe and Aaron are soon faced with a problem they have no way of understanding. A potential investor, Thomas Granger (Chip Carruth), is clean-shaven at an afternoon meeting. He shows up outside of Aaron's house at 2 a.m. with a three-day growth of beard and promptly falls into a coma. Then, things get complicated.

Abe and Aaron read true to life as engineers, which is no surprise considering the film’s director was a software engineer before starting a career in film. Carruth and Sullivan are both first-time actors, but their understated performances fit with the rest of the movie.

And that's one of the most important parts of the film: it feels real. Abe and Aaron are the types who would stumble onto time travel – engineers doing little research projects in their garage. The time machine runs on car batteries and parts from Aaron's truck. They have no business pioneering tech this revolutionary. Hell, they have no business being protagonists. Beyond discovering time travel, they're boring guys, and their dialog is anything but snappy. Their personal failings aren't presented dramatically, but rather left for the viewer to dig into and interpret.

Some shots are oversaturated with certain colors to help viewers keep track of which iterations of Abe and Aaron the audience is looking at. It doesn't help much; by the time the Granger incident happens, they've already messed with causality; that is to say, things are happening because of things that other versions of them stopped from happening.

Primer is so hard to follow that it will turn many viewers away, the story is an unspeakable mess. It's coherent, I promise, but Carruth's minimalistic style doesn't do it any favors. This isn't an allegorical or metaphorical film, either. It's a very grounded story that just happens to be confusing, non-linear and ambitious. Yes, it feels unpolished, but considering the four-figure budget for the whole movie, it's impressive.

But it's for these same reasons that I'm so in love with Primer. Nobody makes movies this challenging. The story winds like a Gordian knot. There's not a scrap of film wasted, either. And it's a movie you can see ten times and still discover something new. Believe me; I have. This is one of the most ambitious movies this century, both in terms of budget and narrative complexity.

Congratulations, you're one movie closer to justifying that $8.99 a month.

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