This is a low-budget sci-fi movie that garnered a lot of attention and awards, and was notable for being made for only $7,000. I liked it a great deal when I saw it at the theater, but there are a number of people out there who view this film with distain--not really sure why--so I wanted to watch it again to see how it holds up and what their issues might be. One thing I had read about the film before going in, which I think was crucial to being able to enjoy it, is that the writer/director's idea is that since time travel ends up fracturing the lives and identities of the film's main characters, the film will also be fractured, and by the end the narrative will be so completely spliced by jumps backward and forward in time, we the audience will share the same bewilderment as the characters. So it helps to know going in that it's not just you: the ending really only makes the slightest amount of sense, and you might have only the most tenuous idea of what has happened.
We have a cool logo in place of a title, which appears to be the letters of the title superimposed and mirrored over themselves. We then join four guys working on some tech project in a garage, then sitting around a table stuffing envelopes. Two of these guys are blonde Abe, and brunette Aaron, who is played by Shane Carruth the writer/director. A good twenty minutes goes by with us not really knowing what the guys are working on, just that it is an advanced technology they are developing in their garage, and there is a level of secrecy about it, because they think it will be extremely salable. We also learn that the guys are hurting for funding, and trying to lure a local investor, Granger. Soon Aaron and Abe decide to cut the other two guys out of their business. We see them buying gasses and pulling apart cars and refrigerators for parts, and the movie very successfully captures the hushed excitement of developing a new technology and having a big secret right out in the garage, as well as keeping it all mundane and believable by having the machine be quite ungainly, not sleek and shiny and high-design. It also captures the amount of round-the-clock work required, and successfully expresses Aaron and Abe's characters and their ambitions by having then dressed in white shirts and ties for almost the entire film, even when just working at home.
So it goes on for a good 20 minutes without you having any idea what is going on. We're not even sure what the guys are trying to accomplish. Yet somehow it stays intriguing. The guys make this impressive-looking thing, and gather a bunch of paper punches, and we see the tiny shard of paper float down somewhat slower than they might in reality, a microscopic special effect that goes a long way. We're starting to be convinced that this machine does something really strange, an impression aided by the guys saying that they can't look at it while it's on. They put a Weeble in and set it off (I mistakenly thought it was a Russian nesting doll, which, in retrospect, would have been more thematically appropriate). It goes on for a while, then suddenly Abe is really excited about something, and takes Abe around to various scientists to explain what has happened. The Weeble grew fungus. It grew a kind of common household fungus, such that would normally take about five years to grow. Then Abe takes Aaron out to a field and asks him to look through binoculars. What Aaron sees is Abe there, in the distance, even as he's standing beside him. It turns out that a side effect of the machine they've invented is time travel. Devotees of screenwriting manuals will note that this revelation occurs at the exact moment the running time hits thirty minutes.
SPOILERS > > >
They take a while to reel from this, then start thinking, since they need funding, about using it to play the lottery, and settle on stock trades. What happens involves them setting the box on a fifteen-minute delay, then getting out of there and spending the day holed up in a hotel, all communication turned off. The reason for this is that the time travel will temporarily create a double, and they need to take pains not to run into their double or cause anything while their other self is out there. There's a diagram on this Wikipedia page that explains the whole thing, and also gives you a plot summary that is more coherent than what you're going to get here, because I'm just going to write about what I saw. Anyway, they execute a trade, make some money, and this sets up them going through this process a few more times. Soon they find that the process causes them to bleed from the ears. And eventually Aaron has the idea to use the machine to get the satisfaction of punching his boss in the face--then undoing it--which they dismiss, but starts to stick in a strange way.
From now on, things start getting more and more bewildering, as the narrative fractures because the guys are going back in time, further and further, breaking up events, altering them, then dealing with consequences they don't yet understand. They see Granger (the investor they were trying to entice) following them. In a very spooky scene, Aaron follows Abe following Granger behind a house at night, and when we get back there, both Aaron and Granger are lying on the ground, and we have no idea what happened. We learn that Abe is stealing, and for a while it seems like he is the bad seed, but we soon learn that Aaron is recording all of his own conversations, then using them to re-live many scenes with a few seconds advance notice of what will happen. Aaron finds out that Abe has made another box without his knowledge, and what's more, that this box folds up and fits INSIDE the other box. Then we learn that Aaron is colluding with his own double. Eventually the guys part, now sworn enemies. We have these hot credits as seen above.
< < < SPOILERS END
Again, the plot summary on the Wiki page will make much more sense of what happened, but what's impressive about the film is the way it manages to stay intriguing, and even develop tension and suspense, despite the fact that you don't have a clue what is happening. Certain revelations manage to elicit a kind of gasp--like seeing Granger lying unconscious or that one of the guys is in collusion with a double--even as one has no idea how it all fits into a larger narrative. Which I think is kind of an amazing accomplishment. Think of all the movies that try to keep viewers in the dark for while, only to explain everything later, but find that the audience has lost all interest once the revelations come. And yet this one manages to become ever-MORE intriguing precisely because you know you'll never understand it.
We find that Carruth, even on his micro-budget, has a great eye for creating effective, evocative images, several of which linger in the mind; the guys seen through the windows of the garage door, the box looming as silhouette in the foreground, reflections of freeway overpasses as the guys drive down the highway, the guys, after the first trip, sitting, staring in exhausted wonder at what they've created, a sudden (and amazingly effective) motion-controlled shot where the camera moves with an obvious mechanical motion. Then you have the simple but awesome end credits, showing that this guy has a graphic designer's eye, and making you wonder why most other movie's credits have to be so plain.
And by the way, the trailer is amazing.
So, the rare micro-budget self-made movie that really manages to impress and make an astonishing amount out of just a little. That said--it lacks a bit of full movie satisfaction, because after a certain point, one can't understand what's happening! It does have a kind of conclusion, that settles the story in a good-enough way that doesn't keep you hanging, but the main fun of this movie is just how well the story is told and the strange fun of watching everything spin out of control to an extent that even we can't follow it.
I was wondering why I haven't heard more from this director, thinking I must have just missed his several follow-ups, but it turns out he hasn't had any--UNTIL NOW. Yes, this very week his next film is coming out, promises to be another weird trip-out, this time involving pharmaceuticals (one of my favorite topics) and I can't wait! Nice surprise to want another film, and have one coming just a few days away. You have that long to get primed.
Yes, just know that it's hard to make sense of.