I’ve written about this movie before. I generally try to avoid writing up the same movie twice, but I’m making a special exception for this one. Nay, a new mandate for myself. I will write about this one every time I see it, at least until I feel like I properly understand it. I am declaring Primer my new Mulholland Dr, and I am determined to watch it until I get it. Not all at once mind you, but now and again over however long it takes.

I thought about it the other day when I swear I saw Rian Johnson recommend it to Kumail Nanjiani when he asked on Twitter for suggestions of cerebral scifi movies. I can’t find either tweet anymore. But it reminded me that it deserved a revisit.

A refresher, what is this movie? It’s a super low budget indie scifi about a couple of techie geeks who accidentally build a time machine. They begin with a super cautious approach of only going back a few hours at a time and remaining isolated so as to not run into their other selves, while making a few changes to improve their future prospects. But of course, potential that great is hard to take in moderation, so one of them tries to take more risks against the warnings of the other. It strains their friendship as they fight with each other for control of their futures by using their past.

First of all, time travel movies are inherently confusing. If it’s not warping your brain, they’re not trying hard enough. There’s always gonna be paradoxes involved. I actually did find a super helpful diagram on Wikipedia that helps explain how the timelines work. It certainly cleared up a lot of it for me, but there’s still one detail that’s unique to this film that I can’t wrap my brain around: in order to travel to a particular time, you need to have previously placed “the box” at that time and turned it on. In other words, this isn’t Hermione spinning a necklace X number of times or Doc Brown setting a date on his Delorean. Time travel requires advance planning.

Let’s step back a bit. First act of the film, pretty straightforward. The dudes discover. Second act, still not too difficult (especially with the help of the diagram). Singular time loops with a singular purpose. It’s the third act that’s pure chaos (not necessarily a bad thing).

I’ll admit that once again I was watching this film a little too late, so maybe I need to next attack it in the morning with a fresh brain. I mostly get what they were trying to do. That same Wikipedia article was helpful in keeping plot points straight (although I still don’t get the significance of the party with the gunman). It’s the pre-planning that I’d mentioned before that really cooks my noodle. One guy set up a fail safe machine (I’m with that) but somehow the other did too and there were multiple ones running and when did they think to do all that and how did they record themselves and how many loops have there been and are we really just ignoring the possible physical effects if there are any and what’s with the other dude who did it and was there something about taking a machine into the machine and I have no idea what’s going on but it looks like it’s over now. Yeah.

So okay, I feel like I’ve got 2/3 of the movie straight. That’s basically where I was with Mulholland too and I eventually figured that one out just enough (with multiple rewatches and tons of internet research). I can figure out this one too, yeah? If I haven’t made another attempt by next summer, someone please remind me