Even though Shane Carruth’s 2004 micro-indie Primer, which was made on a $7,000 budget and looks it, found an equally micro fandom, it didn’t seem primed to change the world of cinema. It’s had its own small-scale followers, though: The idea of a tinkerer or two cobbling together a time-travel device in a garage, basement, or back room is a fascinating premise, mostly because it puts all the ethical and scientific problems of time travel into the hands of a few people with no oversight, following no rules but their own.
Movies like See You Yesterday, Project Almanac, Safety Not Guaranteed, and the new Aporia put a particularly personal spin on time travel. The question stops being “Is it right to risk the future in order to fix a problem in the past?” Instead, it’s more like “What right does a given random person have to make that decision for everyone else?”
The tiny sci-fi movie Aporia focuses more on those ethics than anything else, sometimes to a fault. It’s both a fascinating and frustrating little trolley problem of a film, one where emotions run high and logic sometimes runs thin. But while it looks and feels like a companion piece to Primer, complete with grubby, desaturated visuals and a home-cooked look, it’s just as much a companion piece to this year’s Oppenheimer, a much larger, shinier, and more strident movie about the morality of inventing the future. Like Oppenheimer, Aporia considers the fallout of new technology, and the ethical decision to use it. It just makes the stakes a lot smaller and more personal.
[Ed. note: This analysis avoids spoilers, but the trailer below gives away more of what happens in the film.]
The important action in Aporia is set off by American immigrant Jabir (Payman Maadi), who’s spent a decade building a machine capable of sending a single particle back through history to a specific place and time — and through the head of a target he designates. His time machine won’t let people travel to the past; it’s essentially just a gun aimed at the past. As he explains to the movie’s real protagonist, slowly disintegrating widow Sophie (Judy Greer), the machine still isn’t powerful enough to reach back in time to kill a dictator and save Jabir’s family. But it might be powerful enough to take out the drunk driver who killed her husband, Mal (Edi Gathegi), eight months earlier.
Sophie’s choice (no reference intended on my end, though I can’t speak for writer-director Jared Moshe) is hard enough when she just has to decide whether she’s willing to try to murder the man who destroyed her family and turned her bright, science-minded daughter, Riley (Faithe Herman), into an increasingly rebellious, aggressive delinquent. The machine, as any fan of time-travel stories would expect, ends up having unforeseen consequences. And while its first test does give Sophie some of what she’s hoped for, it also encourages Jabir, who wants to keep firing his time-gun at mass shooters and other killers.
Fans of Oppenheimer will see a clear resonance between that film and this one, where the rush to test and perfect a scientific process suddenly changes dimension once that process works. The ethical questions are quickly taken out of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s hands in Christopher Nolan’s movie, and he’s left to stew on them alone. Jabir and Sophie, on the other hand, are left with the weapon in their hands and the future wide open.
“It was so much easier when it was theory. When it was just you and me spitballing ideas,” Jabir’s scientific partner in crime says wistfully after that first test. (It’d be a spoiler to get into who that is.) “Maybe it’s because we did it over a bottle of wine,” Jabir counters. “Everything is easier over a bottle of wine.” More to the point, though, everything’s easier as an abstract philosophical problem than it is to a handful of characters with a secret gun in their hands and no clear sense of the consequences of firing it.
That ethical debate is both the best and worst thing about Aporia. Moshe’s script invites viewers to consider all the factors and make their own call about what they’d be willing to sacrifice to change history, particularly with such imprecise results. It’s an interesting small-scale conundrum that feels different from most time-travel movies’ takes on similar ideas, in large part because the characters don’t actually get to visit the past themselves and make dynamic choices. But they also don’t have to be present for the chaos they cause — they have even less skin in the game than remote drone operators. They’re effectively operating blind, then deciding for themselves how much they can live with the changes they see after they use the machine, and whether they have any ability to alter them. All of which gives Aporia a texture and thoughtfulness that feels unique.
At the same time, the execution is endlessly frustrating. Sophie sets herself down as the moral arbiter over the machine, even though she had no hand in creating it and only knows about it because Jabir offered to rescue her when, as she puts it, she and Riley were drowning. “Maybe it’s not about who we kill. Maybe it’s about who we save,” Jabir tells her, in the gentle tone he maintains throughout the movie, no matter how controlling and self-righteous Sophie gets about his invention. But she isn’t just uninterested in that nuance, she’s outright condescending to him about it.
Greer plays Sophie as a woman of deep feeling, empathy, and fragility, and her emotional commitment to Sophie’s pain and desperation is the only thing that prevents her from coming across as a villain. But there’s no escaping what a bad look it is for her to get what she wants out of the situation, then turn on Jabir for trying to help other people. Her fury when he dares use his own invention without her permission is particularly grotesque. And her position as the focal point of the movie never stops feeling strange, as she takes center stage over both the man she wants to save and the man who made it possible.
That’s where Aporia most parts ways with Oppenheimer as a story about the decisions around and the consequences of a potentially devastating new invention. Imagine a version of Oppenheimer where the historical physicist maintained complete personal control over the atom bomb, and then had to deal with Jean Tatlock coming around every day to scream at him that he shouldn’t use it because people will die.
There’s a solid thought experiment at the heart of Aporia, one that keeps threatening to get more compelling and complicated as the details of the time machine’s function become more apparent. But the movie only seems interested in Sophie’s reactions and demands, to the point where everyone else in the movie gets sidelined as she pushes her needs and decisions on them. Apparently it’s possible to make one of these small-scale time-travel movies too personal, and too much about how one ordinary person navigates the genre’s biggest questions without regard for anyone else.