Shane Carruth’s paranormal lozenge is really two films: the first a superbly ingenuous ooze, the second a dubious manipulation of the same.
Young scientist-engineers Aaron (Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) are corporate drones by day and would-be inventors by night. Tinkering with argon gas, mercury and magnetism —and spilling arcane details to the camera — they construct a device whose purpose they can’t fully fathom. This they do in a garage of the kind where 1950s kids once built jalopies (and So-Cal wizards developed app algorithms). The odd behavior of the “box” leads the scientists to think they’ve stumbled onto something big. But what? Knowing (naturally) requires stepping not outside but into the box.
Carruth handles this section with a conjuror’s deftness. Alas, the box does have a function, and, once known, the story is pushed into the eerie but ultimately futile realm of short-form time travel, doppelgangers, and future-changing greed. Simply put, the real magic box ruins the box of possibilities.
From the start, Carruth runs a clever finger along the bladed edge that is the human capacity for discovery and the risks that go with it. So long as the story stays in that realm — two friends shoved into a great beyond — Carruth is at one with his mesmerizing material. It’s like the American Dream in the hands of theorem-spouting soothsayers.
But once in science fiction’s good graces, Carruth is cornered, and responds to time and transcendence in ways that, while no doubt clear to him, make a muddle of the ambiguity that came before. A voice-over snippet early on tells audiences that Aaron and Abe are “out of their depth.” As conduits of wonder, they’re not; on the contrary, wonder becomes them. Later, as manipulators of the same, the outness intervenes. What is this a primer for? Only heady mathematician Carruth will ever know for sure.