Friday, July 16, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Primer (2004)

"How many times would it take, before he got it right? Three? Four? Twenty? I've decided to believe that only one more would have done it. I can almost sleep at night, if there's only one more..."

"...Slowly and methodically, he reverse-engineered a perfect moment. He took from his surroundings what was needed, and made of it something more ..."

-A frightened Abe (David Sullivan) debates the pitfalls of amateur time travel and the illusion of control in Shane Carruth's Primer.

The word primer may be defined in a couple of ways. For instance, a primer is an elementary book or text that introduces and prepares a reader for an understanding of a particular topic.

Or, a primer could be the first layer of paint applied in a project, before the final layer goes on.

Shane Carruth's award-winning, low-budget mind-bender Primer (2004) concerns two ingenious, ambitious young men in Dallas, Abe (David Sullivan) and Aaron (Carruth), who accidentally discover their garage workshop.

These two engineeers then proceed to play with time itself as though it were a primer, a dress-rehearsal that they can use, re-use, and practice with until they get things exactly the way they desire.

In other words, Abe and Aaron keep re-living the same incidents -- slathering on a new layer of paint, over familiar events, as it were -- certain that after five, ten, or even twenty iterations of the same event (like a party...), time will finally see things their way. They believe they can actually master a moment; control the direction of time and produce beneficial outcomes. Maybe not at all once. But eventually.

A downside is that Abe and Aaron's method of time travel may not be even remotely safe. After several sojourns back in time, the men begin to spontaneously bleed out of their ears...and they can no longer hold a pen steady when they try to write notes. Worse than the physical ramifications, however, Abe and Aaron eventually lose all trust in each other.

What if the other guy is using the time travel mechanism (a long box that seems like a coffin...) to his own personal advantage, and is keeping secrets about it?

"What's worse," asks Aaron, "
thinking you're being paranoid or knowing you should be?"

which was made for a meager $7,000 dollars, is a cinematic head-trip of the highest order. It compellingly follows two characters who are "out-of-their-depth" according to the dialogue, and places them into frightening situations in which they must debate causality, paradox, and "recursive" loops. As a consequence, Abe and Aaron promptly find themselves in a world where evidence of their sloppy time-travel handiwork is everywhere. For instance, one night the two men run into a prospective investor who has already used their "box" (the time machine) and is now in some kind of mysterious vegetative state.

Why? The reality in which this man's trip to the past (Abe and Aaron's present...) occurred no longer exists. It's been erased from Aaron and Abe. Yet the man is still present in our world, though now he never even made the trip in the first place. He's just a time-time travel byproduct...a side-effect of the process.

Time travel is described in the film "as the most important thing any living organism has ever seen," and yet Abe and Aaron hardly treat their momentous discovery with appropriate respect. They make mistakes, they break their own rules and all of existence could be at stake.

For instance, several days in a row, Abe and Aaron travel back in time several hours (the limit of their machine's capacity) and buy stocks that double in get rich quick. Similarly, Aaron fantasizes about punching his white-collar boss in the nose, and then going back in time and preventing himself from doing it. These are not exactly philanthropic endeavors.

These men are simply children who "play" at life, and believe no mistake can't be undone. All of life is just a dress-rehearsal, a primer, and there's always time to make things right on the next go-round. To state that they are both short-sighted doesn't exactly make the point. These guys are on a juvenile power trip. "We know everything, okay? We're prescient," Aaron suggests.

But Abe comes to fear the power they wield, and attempts to use a secret "fail safe" time machine to undo everything he and Aaron have done...but Aaron is, at heart, a shark, and has already anticipated Abe's second thoughts. Abe's discovery of Aaron's true nature makes for one of the film's most unsettling sequences, which plays like a commentary, perhaps, on human nature.

Although it features no action scenes, no special effects, and no name actors, Primer remains one of the most exhilarating, imaginative motion pictures I've seen in years. The film is alive with smart, overlapping dialogue and a spine-tingling sense of anticipation and fear as Abe and Aaron delver deeper into the mysteries and pitfalls of their surprise discovery. Primer is unfailingly smart, and as a rule, we movie critics never like to admit when a movie is smarter than we are.

This movie is smarter than I am.

I had to watch Primer twice to piece (most of) it together.

Well, that's not exactly true. The time travel mechanics and scientific aspects of the film are much more than "basic mechanics and heat 101," but the emotional and moral aspects of the film are plain enough for general audiences to comprehend easily on a first viewing. The film takes the audience from the thrill of inventing something new, something that could change the "world" to the disappointment that, in the wrong hands, nothing important changes. Even time travel is just another get-rich-quick-scheme, a short-cut for men who feel disenfranchised by the establishment and want to leap-frog, illicitly, into the realm of the millionaire.

In a way, time travel in Primer is almost comparable to nuclear power. Yes, it is enormously advantageous for those who wield it, but it boasts troubling side-effects. In particular, it creates byproducts that are not so desirable. In nuclear power, it's spent nuclear fuel, depleted uranium and other wastes that are created through fission. In time travel, it's unexpected consequences: people without a past or future (like the vegetative man), or a possibly murderous duplicate from a non-existent past who is locked away in the attic and trying to break free.

But what Primer does so well is this: It makes us realize that nothing is for free. There's always a cost to power, nuclear or otherwise.

Primer opens with Abe, Aaron and two other men toiling in the garage, using their expensive equipment to create something new. Anything new, really. There are shots of the men laboriously preparing envelopes at the kitchen table for prospective investors in hopes of generating interest...and a budget for their work. And there are domestic scenes here too: of a patient wife, and a new baby. The pressure to "get rich" and support the family is palpable, and so the viewer quickly becomes invested in the travails of Aaron and Abe. They don't want to be office slaves their whole life, tethered to a predictable routine in which they inevitably fail to achieve their dreams. Aaron and Abe -- both engineers -- are also facing a unique timetable of extinction. "You know what they do with engineers when they turn forty?" a technician jokes. "They take them out and shoot them..."

Since time is running short for these men to make their mark in the world (as well as their millions), time travel presents Abe and Aaron an opportunity to escape the 9-to-5 drudgery so many of us face...and yet these are clearly not the men you would want to discover time travel, accidentally or not. Accordingly, the film shifts moods many times as it races through its 78-minute running time. It goes from a feeling of giddy discovery to a fear of the unknown, to downright paranoia, and the result is that when the movie ends, you feel like you've been holding your breath the whole time. You've gone from identifying with Aaron to actively fearing him.

Primer is truly that most mythical of cinematic beasts: the sci-fi movie that fans always claim they long for and dream about. One about human nature, one featuring a brilliant script, and one that puzzles out every ramification of its premise with inspired cleverness. In every sense (and aided by Carruth's able, almost cinema-verite-style cinematography), Primer feels alarmingly real. There's nothing stereoptypically Hollywood about this movie; even the time machine device (explained in laborious, wonderful detail) looks like something created in a garage, not by a special effects wizard.

And the implications of time travel, as explained by Primer, are terrifying.

If you and your best buddy discovered time travel today, would you trust him (or her) to monkey around with all our yesterdays? Or as the movie's tag-line puts it: What happens if it actually works?

Is anyone thinking that far ahead?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 110: Space:1999: "Mission of the Darians" (1975)

Every now and then, I return here to my continuing exploration of Space: 1999, the landmark Gerry and Sylvia Anderson TV space adventure from the mid-1970s....the era of Watergate, the Energy Crisis, and the War in Vietnam.

This series was the subject of my very first published book, 1997's Exploring Space: 1999 (McFarland and Company., Inc.), now available in
Kindle Edition.

I've also featured over the years on this blog cult-tv flashbacks of the popular and scary 1999 episode "Dragon's Domain," as well as my own personal favorite installment, Johnny Byrne's "Force of Life."

Not long ago, I also posted an in-depth survey of Space: 1999's horror mythology.

Since one of the projects I'm working on right now is an officially licensed Space: 1999 novel (entitled "The Whispering Sea"), I've been pondering this classic series a great deal; and in particular the fashion in which talented writers Johnny Byrne and Christopher Penfold crafted meaningful and relevant drama out of real-life events, contemporary events.

Science Digest once aptly termed Space: 1999 "a visually stunning, space-age morality play that chronicles the downfall of 20th-Century technological man," and that quotation really gets to the crux of many of the series' mind-blowing narratives.

During Year One, author and script-editor Johnny Byrne penned an outstanding entry called "Mission of the Darians," the tale of the intrepid Alphans rendering help and assistance to a damaged space ark from the planet Daria.

What Commander Koenig (Martin Landau) and his rescue team discover on the colossal, nearly-destroyed spaceship, however, is a real horror. Because of a nuclear accident on board the Ark generations earlier, the Darians have splintered into two societies, two classes.

Existing on one level of the damaged ship are primitive, mutated Darians, ones who have no technology, and worship a deity called "Neman." On another level are the technologically-advanced, genetically "pure" Darians. They are led by the likes of aristocratic Kara (Joan Collins) and Captain Neman, who exploit the unknowing primitives of Level 7 as a "resource." More specifically, the "pure breed" Darians manipulate the primitives' belief in God to abscond with body parts...for limb replacement surgery...and food.

Simply put, the Darians are cannibals. The upper class feeds on the lower class. Literally. Commander Koenig, Victor Bergman (Barry Morse), astronaut Alan Carter (Nick Tate) and Dr. Russell (Barbara Bain) learn about the Darian society up-close-and-personal, and Russell is herself almost used as "spare parts" in a Darian surgical theatre.

As Johnny Byrne noted on more than one occasion, the creative impetus for "Mission of the Darians" came from a real life, disco-decade story about human nature...and survival. On October 13, 1972, Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 crashed in the inhospitable Andes mountains on the way to Santiago, Chile. Forty-five rugby team players were on board the doomed flight. Twelve people died in the crash, and another five expired from injuries sustained in the accident. With no medical supplies, no food, and no immediate possibility of help (the survivors learned from radio news broadcasts that the search for them had been called off...), the survivors resorted to cannibalism, to eating the flesh of their dead comrades.

On December 23, 1972, sixteen survivors were rescued from Flight 571, suffering from acute frost-bite, dehydration, malnutrition and altitude sickness. Their harrowing story was related in the best-seller, Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors (1974; J.B. Lippincott). Johnny Byrne later told TV Zone magazine, in relation to "Mission of the Darians" that
The Andean plane crash had happened, and I was struck by the fact that people had eaten each other to live." (David Richardson. TV Zone, Issue # 54: "Writing 1999: Johnny Byrne." Page 10, 1992.).

Later, Byrne informed me an in interview that his goal in crafting "Mission of the Darians" was not to make villains of the story's cannibals (or by extension, those who had resorted to cannibalism here on Earth.) "They had suffered a catastrophe and were trying to survive, and so the Darians weren't evil," Byrne explained to me. "Cannibalism happens. Flesh is flesh, whether it is human flesh or animal flesh. When I wrote that episode, it had just happened [in the Andes]..."

This idea of desperate times calling for desperate measures goes back to one of Space: 1999's most important and enduring "memes," what The Los Angeles Times' Dick Adler termed "limited options for survival" in a domain where resources are scarce.

The same writer also noted that where Star Trek had been "recklessly liberal," Space: 1999 was far more "realistic" in approach.

When I read Byrne this particular quote, he approved of Adler's observation, calling it "astute." "Space:1999 represents a very definite shift from the 1960s to the 1970s," Byrne elaborated. "It wasn't a hippie dream. It was the wake-up after the dream."

In Exploring Space:1999 I note that not one of the alien cultures encountered by the Alphans in Year One are technologically less advanced than the turn-of-the-century Alphans.

As "advanced" peoples, these alien cultures thus prove examples (or teachers) for the humans of Alpha to either emulate or reject. For instance, In "The Guardian of Piri," Koenig rejects the Pirian manner of "perfection" because it robs humanity of its impetus to achieve. In "Missing Link," Koenig likewise rejects the Zennite way of life because it values intellect entirely over emotions, and Koenig still believes it is "more important to feel" than to dispassionately reason. In Byrne's "Voyager's Return," the Alphans reject a society that has found purpose only in vengeance, the Sidons. And on "The Last Enemy," the Alphans encounter two humanoid races that have fallen into a state of everlasting war, and reject that outcome as well.

If, as viewers, we are to believe that the Alphans are, perhaps, being "guided" to a particular destiny (as Byrne's Year One denouement, "The Testament of Arkadia" indicates) then these particular planetary stops (Piri, Delta, Zenno, etc.) along the way are, essentially, object lessons for a species that seeks a second chance in space (after the destruction of the Earth's environment/civilization following the premiere episode, "Breakaway.")

In "Mission of the Darians," the Alphans receive another object lesson about survival in outer space. In particular, they are confronted with a terrible "what if" scenario that mirrors, in many ways, their own forseeable future. Without resources, and facing a long trip to a destination planet or "home," the humanoid Darians have fed on themselves, on their people, and on their people's hopes. They've even fed on their people's spiritual beliefs to assure continued survival. This "what if" situation is put into explicit perspective for John Koenig by a final question from Alan Carter.

The pilot asks his commander: "If the same thing happened on Alpha, would you have chosen differently?"

Notably, Koenig doesn't answer the question directly. "Remind me to tell you sometime," he quips, deflecting the query.

I asked Byrne specifically about this exchange, and he told me that Koenig's deliberate non-answer is particularly important. Koenig could not have chosen differently, Byrne explained, because ultimately survival is the name of the game for mankind. Even the humane John Koenig, -- if trapped in a desperate situation -- would act...desperately.

What makes "Mission of the Darians" such a powerful and enduring episode of this 1970s series, I submit, is that Byrne offered a very clever space-age parallel for the Andes story, on virtually all fronts.

For instance, the survivors of the plane crash who resorted to cannibalism sometimes likened the process of eating the dead to Christianity's sacred "Holy Communion."

Likewise, Byrne's fictional Darian society -- which uses a "God" Neman and angels (men in space suits) to abduct healthy, non-contaminated members of the society as food stuffs and replacement "parts" -- incorporates this spiritual, religious angle in its narrative; though in an entirely futuristic/space-age setting.

Byrne also inventively and imaginatively takes the idea of "cannibalism" to the next level here. In "Mission of the Darians" cannibalism is not just eating the dead but harnessing the dead for personal (and species) immortality; and in a very real sense, feeding on the "hopes" and "dreams" of a people in the process. Cannibalism in "Mission of the Darians" is thus literal and metaphorical.

A very strong example of the long-lived "space ark" sub-genre of science fiction (last seen in the effective sci-fi horror pic Pandorum), Space:1999's "Mission of the Darians" is also distinguishable as one of the program's most lavishly-designed and executed stories. The episode features impressive miniatures, gorgeous matte-paintings of the S.S. Daria, and several new live-action sets.

Byrne also remembered the episode's production values as "simply astounding," and credited director Ray Austin for his visualization of the narrative.

"Just the way it played out, I was amazed how one three-minute sequence featuring Barbara Bain and the Darian 'vetting' procedure so completely explained the bizarre food-chain of the devastated environment," Byrne told me.
This is no surprise, but occasionally, I get ribbed or fisked for my continued appreciation of Space: 1999 in the Year 2010. It's very easy for people who have never watched the series to laugh at the year 1999 in the title; which they mistkanely perceive to be some kind of expiration date. Without ever having seen the program consistently, these naysayers choose to deride it as campy because it was made in the 1970s and reflects several 1970s conventions in terms of fashion, hairstyles, and mode of communication.

Yet Space:1999 retains tremendous currency today, in the Era of Peak Oil and limited planetary resources. All of Space:1999's action, for instance, predicated on an atomic explosion on a lunar dump. With the Gulf Oil Spill of 2010, we've certainly seen that such massive catastrophes are possible...and boast unforseen impact.

Anyway, a regular blog reader recently sent me a great link showing that, yep, NASA still has Space:1999 on the brain too.

In particular, the Agency has launched an Online Game called -- you guessed it -- Moonbase Alpha. The game deals with survival in a difficult environment and with limited resources...the lunar surface. Check it out here.