Monday, March 3, 2008

Primer, Fractal Mazes and Mulholland Drive

I just finished re-watching (again) the 2004 movie "Primer." It's brilliant. I'm willing to give a film major points just for being unlikely. This does much better than just "unlikely." At only an hour and 17 minutes, it takes about four hours of repeat viewing to get a handle on the intricate plot.

I won't be spoiling much to explain the movie is about time travel. It confronts the paradoxes of time travel and concludes that duplicates of people can alter their own past without disappearing (in contrast to Michael J. Fox's hand in "Back to the Future").

I'll get to the complexity of the plot in a minute. First, it's worth mentioning that the movie is stylistically very slick for such a low budget. It's very cleverly shot and the acting of the two leads is surprisingly good. The world the movie shows is a hyper-realized cosmos of pale shirts and power-ties of high-tech entrepreneurs. They even wear ties when they scavenge for metal parts.

At it's heart the movie is a very elegantly designed puzzle. Here are some of the rules:

  • The characters in-the-know have access to two storage-box-sized time machines
  • These characters can change their own past without nullifying themselves
  • Anyone who travels back it time will have their time-line overlap with their earlier selves
  • Time travel can be done repeatedly
  • A character might time travel without letting the audience know
Can a character go back to a time before the time machine was invented? Right now, I'd argue this is an open question. It does not seem to follow from the logic of the machine but there are some tantalizing clues in the script which suggest otherwise.

The rules of "Primer's" plot are similar to puzzles called fractal mazes. Fractal mazes are recursive and so is the plot to "Primer." Pathways are used repeatedly to different ends.

My guess is, that like a fractal maze, "Primer" is open to a variety of solutions. Though not all attempts at solutions work.

It's very easy to run into a dead-end in a fractal maze. In "Primer," not all story interpretations work. Any plot-solution that contradicts the logic (including growth of facial hair or Aaron's use of headphones) runs into its own "dead-end."

Rather than explain how fractal mazes work, better you just give 'em a try via the links below:

For a JavaScript version of the fractal maze to the left, go here. The page also includes a variety of solutions.

For a more complex fractal maze, try this. (Various solutions here.)

My guess is, the plot was designed with a particular solution in mind. Shane Carruth (writer, director, producer and actor for Aaron) is a mathematician and engineer. (YouTube interview here.) So I'm guessing he pieced this together with a particular solution in mind. But, again, clues to various solutions abound.

There is an online subculture of people trying to solve the plot. This post is fairly close to my current grokking. This thread offers additional interpretations.

And then there is this ambitious piece of work which I think might be more confusing than the movie.

If there is a specific solution to the "Primer" puzzle, these all may still be wrong. Then again, more than one may fit logically.

Maybe I'm wrong. When I first saw "Mulholland Drive," I simply accepted the plot as surrealism -- open to any dream interpretation. I've since been convinced otherwise by the site Lost on Mulholland Drive which offers a very persuasive analysis of the movie in logical terms.

Others are way ahead of me on the view-count for "Primer." I'll see if I can get a better picture of the story soon.

Image to the left from LOL Science.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I love this fractal maze stuff. I was surprised you didn't link the book and its lengthy explanation. I had to print out the whole thing in order to really grasp the outline of what actually occurred, especially off-screen. I don't have the link, but it is called The Primer Universe.