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Issue #125 - January 2006

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A Prime Cut of Reel SF

By Stuart Carter

Itís something of a truism in the genre that SF really doesnít translate terribly well to the big screen ó and if you can still hear me over the gnashing of teeth and beating of breast from the, ahem, "Wookie camp" then let me just expound upon that statement.

Science fiction ó proper, grown-up, following-the-rules science fiction ó is a genre that presents unique problems in translation into a more visual medium. For example, we have enough trouble with unrestrained "infodumping" intruding upon the action in SF novels, let alone in SF films, which ó rather peculiarly, if you think about it ó are generally constrained by a sheen of "vérité" far more than any more conventionally located film, perhaps because the "reality" of the SF film is already a fragile enough construct, and to place any further strain on that construct, e.g. by stepping outside an already fictionalized narrative to explain a point that any inhabitants of the narrative should, almost by definition, already know, would be a step too far down the road of pure fantasy.

So the SF film is the victim of an often-crippling tension between the need to appear plausible, to look real, and the need to explain itself to us, so that we can understand where we are and how we got there. One might almost say that there is a tension inherent in the title of the genre between the need of science to explain itself, to make us understand, and the fiction to simply tell a story. In any kind of SFnal storytelling the explanation and the appearance are frequently at odds, but this is most apparent in cinematic SF. How to get across that the strange silver shower cap on our heroineís head is a mind-reading device with terrible side-effects? It isnít obvious to us in the way that, say, a large, hollow, noisy, metal box sitting on four pieces of rubber is a transportation device called a "car"; we require some background on the purposes (and possibly the development) of strange silver shower caps with terrible side-effects.

SF films often donít have the time to do this, however, because most sane audiences donít have the interest or necessary attention span to sit through, say, the professorís spiel about how he came up with the idea of mind reading through the use of strange silver shower caps with terrible side-effects. So it strikes me that genuinely SFnal films, those sailing most perilously close to the platonic ideal of SF, are going to be very allusive in their workings using, as they do, things that do not exist, and employing them in a realist setting. Genuinely SFnal films, for example, like Darren Aronofskyís Pi ó an SF film par excellence in my book ó must explain themselves as they go along, building a rickety bridge of cause and effect to explain new things that the logic of the filmís reality requires we understand. Aronofsky already has enough on his plate trying to explain this strange world of advanced mathematics we find ourselves in, so he must use a privileged first-person narrator whose personal notes we are privy to throughout. Without this technical backup his narrator is merely a delusional madman. So this SFnal cinema of ideas has its real, if ill-defined limits, levels of evidence and difference beyond which it cannot go without sacrificing understanding. Some kind of explanation, in some form, is absolutely necessary in this class of film.

Then there are genuinely SFnal films like Shane Carruthís Primer. Primer is a dense geometric block of a film, unforgiving to even the least casual viewer. It follows two young American scientist-technicians, Abe and Aaron, as they discover a working form of time-travel. We then see how they develop it, how they decide to use it and how ultimately it drives them apart. Like Pi and also like another worthwhile piece of cinematic SF, Cube, Primer is a low-budget film (although a much lower budget than the other two films, at a bare $7,000), and all three are intelligent pieces of cinema, veering towards arthouse, in that theyíre not big-screen blockbusters ó Cube, the nearest of the three to a mainstream work, is also, notably, the least intellectually challenging of the three. Primer is the most challenging, even without the math of Pi, primarily because it makes no concessions to its audience. There is no cozy voiceover explaining events, no advisory subtitles, and no character says, "Tell me, professor Ö" It looks and sounds very real ó the time travel and everything connected to it is stunningly dull and unglamorous ó but thereís no backup evidence onscreen, other than that which you see occurring, and once the idea of the time travel device is established then everything else is simply a logical extension of this single, simple idea. Itís the classic old SF idea of taking one tiny part of the world, changing it and seeing what happens.

We begin with four guys chatting about technical stuff in a garage where they run a small electrical parts business. The conversation is not very interesting and the sound pickup throughout isnít particularly great either. Through a series of flash-forwards and tense but impenetrable experiments involving Weebles, disassembled microwaves and catalytic converters, something is discovered. Flash further forwards and the something is clarified. A bit.

Eventually, after much more cramped technical conversation, the something is discovered to work as a form of time travel. And now is when you, the viewer, should sit up and start to pay some real attention ó but, of course, this is time travel weíre talking about, and so you really needed to have been paying attention before. But itís too late now, and youíll watch the rest of the movie and blink helplessly as it snowballs in complexity to a car-crash ending.

And then youíll watch it again to try and figure out what the hell just happened.

Then youíll probably watch it again to try and find out what happened just before the bit you were concentrating on before. And even though thereís a privileged narrator doing voiceover, his cryptic pronouncements donít initially shed very much light on events. But this is what I love about Primer: Itís a smart personís film, you have to be awake and alert and thinking to enjoy ó let alone understand ó whatís going on, and in that sense I think itís a very, very pure strain of hard science fiction movie ó "SF" rather than the conventional "Sci-Fi" of the movies. So, given what Iíve already said about SF and arthouse, could it be that hard SF movies, as a genre, are perennially suited only to the arthouse, away from the big-budget glare of mainstream success? Discuss.

Primer, as Iíve already noted, is shot on a microscopic budget, which surprisingly seldom shows, and as a negative feature only in that some of the dialogue is almost impossible to hear, let alone understand (and this is after a great deal of it was redubbed, according to director Shane Carruth!). But itís worth noting that this only helps to add realism to Primer Ė everything is not perfect; on the contrary, we have to strain to hear dialogue, and what we can hear doesnít make much sense because of one of three things: either itís familiar banter between friends, engineering technobabble or, more importantly, weíre missing the deeper structural context behind it.

On the surface not a very great deal happens in Primerís 77 minutes, but further viewings reveal a looping, recursive structure that may, or may not, coalesce into a final causative system. Iíve yet to entirely figure out this fascinating and remarkable film, but I do know that Iím prepared to invest repeated viewings in order to do so. Thereís a logical and discernible structure in there somewhere, and given time Iím certain a diagram can be drawn of it such that I can trace all the time-loops and various doubles of Abe and Aaron that scurry through this true geek masterpiece ó I just havenít managed it yet!

Primer - Shane Carruth - New Line Home Video - DVD

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Emerald City - copyright Cheryl Morgan - cheryl@emcit.com
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