Register Wednesday | December 11 | 2019

The Wonderful Muddle of Causality

The time-travel film Primer proves nothing, but enthralls everyone

Shane Carruth’s film Primer, which won the Jury Prize at Sundance in 2004 and has gained a cult following since its release on DVD, was filmed on a $7,000 budget and is supposed to f’n’ blow your mind.

Esquire’s Mike D’Angelo says that “anybody who claims they fully understand what's going on in Primer after seeing it just once is either a savant or a liar.” Well, I’m neither. Certainly, this little-movie-that-could gave me a lot to think about with respect to time travel, but I’m not entirely sure that it raises the bar any higher than other low-budget, high-concept sci-fi fare works have done—films like Cube or Donnie Darko.

Primer concerns a team of four engineers who create, in their spare time, error-checking machines that fund their start-up business. Through this work they stumble upon a machine that, while nobody involved entirely understands how it works, leads two of the engineers to experiment with time-travel. In order to use the time-travel boxes, the two engineers have to set them up on a timer (kind of like pre-heating an oven) and let them run for a chosen amount of time—let’s say six hours, for this example. Then, while the boxes are opening a “window” in time, the two guys head to a hotel.

Six hours later, they return to the boxes (which are kept in a storage locker). They hop in and wait for six hours while they’re being sent back to the time in which they originally programmed the boxes. Then, while their “doubles” are farting around in a hotel room, having voluntarily separated themselves from the outside world to avoid meeting themselves or meeting others who may have already seen their “doubles,” Aaron (Shane Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) are free to trade stocks, place bets on sporting events and muddle about with some dude who brings a shotgun to a party.

Up to this point everything makes at least some amount of sense in the movie—it’s only once you think you understand how time travel works in Primer that it descends into a confusing maelstrom of doubles wandering around at the same time, fucking with each other’s shit and creating one paradox after another.

All in all, I can’t recommend seeing Primer enough. It’s a startling piece of work that transcends both the sci-fi genre and its absolute lack of a budget. While the film adaptation of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy—anyone remember that one?—had a fairly modest (by Hollywood’s standards) budget and George Lucas can create an entire universe where people never go to the bathroom, Primer—set in and around a suburban garage—is nothing short of an astounding achievement.

Unlike most time-travel fare, Primer relies on causality and the notion that the time stream exists in one closed path through, er, time. Some elements of Causal theory (causality loops, backwards causality) suggest that in a universe capricious enough to allow time travel, concepts of past, present and future mean nothing. If your past self can interact with the world at the same time as your present (or future) self, then time is meaningless; even if you happened to bump into yourself, you wouldn’t cause a paradox because time is fluid, like mercury, and everything exists at once.

This basically jives with the idea that paradoxes don’t really exist and nearly fits into the theories proposed by Kip Thorne. He says that there are no circumstances in which a paradox could exist because, essentially, if you could travel through time you would never run into yourself.

Ah, but what about Back to the Future? Well, Back to the Future mainly relies on the theory that Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd provide for an exciting movie franchise. This form of time travel, where one can jaunt to-and-fro in the timeline, is rooted in dramatic tension more than it is in science.

One of the more popular time travel theories is the Many-Worlds Theory. It states that there are alternate universes running parallel to ours and if you were to travel backwards in time you would travel to a universe next to the one you just left and not into the one you’re already in, like cutting in line at the supermarket when another lane opens up. So you can’t actually fix your parent’s messed-up marriage, but you can fix the Earth-Version-2 of your parent’s marriage. While perhaps not as comforting to the Marty McFly that lives inside each and every one of us, it does have a leg up on causality.

Where Primerbecomes gloriously muddled is when the narrative reduces into one giant mess of paradoxes. All of the doubles running around inside the same time stream just shouldn’t happen unless maybe you create so many doubles that every single time-stream is overrun with alternate versions of yourself jumping backwards in time in order to revise reality, in which case, that’s kind of fucked up. And, like a sitcom that turns out to be a dream sequence, isn’t causality just a cop out?

Frankly, I don’t know. I’m a big fan of any form of art that refuses to give you the answers to the questions it poses; we don’t always need the laugh track to know when to laugh—either you laugh or you don’t. Causality isn’t popular in movies; it’s too messy, seemingly random and terribly frightening. Even though Primer becomes incredibly chaotic towards the end, it’s designed that way; and perhaps we should just take it as it is.

Francis Joseph Smith reports on unpopular and underground culture from behind the sofa for Maisonneuve. His column appears every two weeks. Read more recent columns by Francis Joseph Smith.