Wednesday, 2 May 2012

From the archives: Primer and Schrodinger's Cat

I finally got round to watching Source Code and was a little underwhelmed, probably due to high expectations after being blown away by Duncan Jones' first movie Moon. I remembered a little known indie scifi drama called Primer that I reviewed for ZERO magazine in 2006 and the subsequent article I penned on time travel movies and decided to drag this old feature back to the present (which is already the past again).

In 1895, the same year that cinema was born, English author HG Wells wrote ‘The Time Machine’. In the same year 16 year old Albert Einstein dreamed of surfing light waves and ten years later would publish a paper, ’On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies', that redefined our perception of the relationship between time and space. These two highly influential individuals are the fathers of time travel in fiction, and the time travel sci-fi movies that we watch over 100 years later owe much to either or both of them. Wells had already published a story entitled ‘The Chronic Argonauts’ in 1888 and it is widely acknowledged as the first use of time travel in literature but ‘The Time Machine’ was the first to receive wide attention.

There have been two film adaptations of Wells’ classic short story; the definitive George Pal version of 1960 was largely, but not entirely, faithful. A Victorian gentleman invents a time machine and, after demonstrating to a group of friends that time is a fourth dimension along which one can move back and forth, he travels to the future. On his way he makes a number of stops and witnesses catastrophes and war but finally stops in a far-flung future where mankind has separately evolved into two distinct species. The Eloi are mild and peaceful and are preyed upon by the technological but cannibalistic Morlocks. In the original story time travel was a device enabling the storyteller to construct a moral fable of class division and oppression, Wells was a committed socialist and his original story inspired Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’. In the George Pal version the division of the species is caused by a nuclear war, the underground survivors eventually becoming the Morlocks. It also introduced the romantic angle between the inventor and the Eloi girl Weena he rescues from drowning, a far cry from the source material in which the Eloi were four-foot tall pink humanoids with childlike intelligence and the Morlocks eventually ate Weena.

The 2001 adaptation of ‘The Time Machine’ also discarded the ‘class divide’ subtext and further revised the plot to introduce a new motive for the inventor, the death of his fiancĂ©. On completion of his machine he immediately travels back to the night of her murder and attempts to change history. This moves the plot into familiar ‘grandfather paradox’ territory. This paradox concerns the results of travelling to the past attempting to change the course of history. Two schools of thought exist on the outcome of such action. One is that the action immediately causes a branching off into a parallel timeline, the multiverse theory. The other is that any attempt to affect change will fail, as the universe will not allow such a paradox to occur. The latter is the one favoured by this version as all of the inventor’s efforts result in his fiancĂ© dying in another way shortly afterwards. Unfortunately the approach of the screenwriters to the paradox is extremely lazy and by the time the inventor gives up trying to save his love he has altered the past in a number of different ways so this examination of causality falls flat on its face. Anyhow he flees to the future and falls in love with Eloi Samantha Mumba, is confronted with an Uber-morlock in the form of Jeremy Irons and at the climax of the movie defies the initial reason for his being there by changing the past! All of this nicely highlights the fact that time travel as a plot device requires an intelligent and thoughtful script in order to satisfactorily address paradoxes and causality. Popcorn movies should keep it simple. The ‘Back to the Future’ series succeeded by taking a light and deft approach to the problem of altering timelines and even disastrous paradoxes. In ‘Back to the Future Part 2’ Doc Brown speculates that an encounter could “create a time paradox, the results of which could cause a chain reacion that would unravel the very fabric of the space-time continuum and destroy the entire universe! Granted, that's a worst-case scenario. The destruction might, in fact, be very localized, limited merely to our own galaxy!" If only 2001’s version of ‘The Time Machine’ had followed this theory many millions of us would have wasted only thirty minutes of our lives.
Terry Gilliam is to be held up as the leading proponent of successful use of time travel in movies having demonstrated the two most satisfying approaches. In ‘Time Bandits’ time travel is a device used to propel the characters to eras and situations easily recognisable to the audience. The result is a series of circumstantial vignettes through which the audience are led unquestioningly thanks to a shared suspension of disbelief encouraged by the fantastical nature of the story. This approach is an extension of the culture shock device in which a character is set in a particular time and place not their own and the story revolves around their interaction with the people and environments of that time. For example Mark Twain’s ‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court’ or Jean Marie-Poire’s ‘Les Visiteurs’, itself undoubtedly influenced by Gilliam. Another very successful sci-fi example of the culture shock movie is ‘Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home’. Star Trek as we know it today has a relentlessly anal approach to plotting time travel stories, inevitably involving pointless techno babble about Moebius Loops and tertiary subspace manifolds. Generally the writers paint themselves into a corner and use a watered down version of the Morphail Effect to get them out of it, none of which is a fraction as entertaining as seeing an uncomfortably girdled Captain Kirk admonishing a San Francisco driver with a ”double dumb ass on you!”

In Gilliam’s completely contrasting ‘Twelve Monkeys’ the device drives the plot rather than serves it. A prisoner from a dystopian future is sent to the past to investigate the causes of a virus responsible for wiping out the majority of human life on the planet. Due to mistakes in the sending process he is sent back numerous times but tends to suffer similar events each time leading to confused and at times delirious interactions with his surroundings. Gilliam abandons any attempt at nerdish explanations of technology, instead the film is thoughtful and philosophical, leaving the audience entangled within the intricacies of the circular narrative and displaced chronology of the story rather than trying to figure out just what the hell a Minksowskian Block universe is. A very similar approach was used successfully in Christopher Nolan’s ‘Memento’ in which time travel is not an issue but the audience is taken through a narrative structure that works in reverse a la Harold Pinter’s ‘Betrayal’. Unlike Pinter’s 1983 movie Nolan’s central character Leonard is cast adrift in time due to his memory difficulties and for the audience the result is similar to that of ’12 Monkeys’. It requires a second watch at least to even begin to unravel the story and sequence of events.

So on the one-hand good time travel movies are popcorn fodder for pure entertainment, ‘Back to the Future’, ‘Bill and Ted’ or ‘The Terminator’ series. On the other hand a more serious and considered approach to the thorny issues of time and paradox succeeds when our brains are engaged as well as our emotions but we are still spared technological obfuscation, for example ’12 Monkeys’ or ‘Donnie Darko’. It's a shame in many ways that I hadn't seen A Sound of Thunder before I wrote this back in 2006. It is a terrific example of how half-arsery and cheesy film-making can use time travel concepts to make supremely entertaining garbage. I recommend it most highly and you can find a great overview at Scott Telek's Cinema de Merde
However there has always been a niche available for a cranial approach to the problem of time travel and it would appear to have arrived in the form of the independent film ‘Primer’.
Made for the insanely paltry sum of $7,000 by writer/director/cinematographer/composer/producer/star/editor Shane Carruth, ‘Primer’ won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes and the Alfred P. Sloane feature film prize at Sundance in 2004. It makes sense that this was how the movie came into being, the creation of an auteur working with miniscule funds, as there is no chance in hell that a studio would ever bankroll something so unique. The plot of ‘Primer’ concerns the most intricate examination of temporal causality ever committed to film in fictional form. It’s confusing, infuriating and totally compelling.

Four young engineers and fledgling entrepreneurs pass their spare time building error-checking devices and are aware of being close to a leap of innovation. Two of the friends, Abe and Aaron, discover that the effects of a strange field generated by an experimental machine in Aaron’s garage provide the key to a limited time travel device. Unlike HG Wells’ time machine their device can only travel back to the time at which it was turned on and the user must spend as much time in the machine as they wish to go back. Abe and Aaron rapidly recognise the possibilities the machine affords them to make fortunes on the stock market but as they become more ambitious so they become more distrusting of each other’s intentions. The outcome is a befuddling, densely layered examination of causality and human frailty as greed becomes the overriding force behind Aaron’s increasingly calculated actions. The lack of budget ironically works in ‘Primer’s favour as the largely wooden acting genuinely conjures up the appearance of engineers stiffly discussing obscure concepts and the spare visual style concentrates the viewers’ attention on the dialogue, in which the majority of the detail lays.

If you fail to get past the first half hour with your brain intact then you may as well give up and go and watch ‘Timeline’ but if you persevere and get to the end you’ll find yourself watching it again and again as you attempt to answer the question for our age…

If Schrodinger’s cat had a time machine, might he not be in the box at all?

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