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PRIMER (PG-13) (2004)


Official Site

Director: Shane Carruth

Producers: Shane Carruth, David Sullivan

Written by: Shane Carruth

Cast: Shane Carruth, David Sullivan, Casey Gooden, Anand Upadhyaya, Casey Gordon


NASA engineers once spent millions of dollars and countless man-hours trying to figure out how they could get an ink pen to write in space. How did the Soviets, America’s Cold War enemy, solve the same problem? They used a pencil. So goes the exchange between Abe (Sullivan) and Aaron (Carruth), the two main characters in the indie release Primer. This dialogue gives credence and makes somewhat believable what could otherwise be considered a ludicrous notion for a low-budget yet serious-minded film—that one can build a time machine out in the attached garage of your three-bedroom home. We’ve come to see this kind of stuff with big budget Hollywood films like Back To The Future, but what makes Primer somewhat unique is how it aims for plausibility, all on a mere shooting budget of $7000!

It’s a grandiose vision for a small-time project that not only can’t afford razzle-dazzle special effects, but would, I suspect, eschew them even if the option were available. That’s a noble aim for Primer’s director/lead actor/producer Shane Carruth. And to his credit, he ably holds his own with a low-key approach to what Hollywood normally does with big budget bells and whistles. Keeping it simple, Carruth’s Primer is about the ultimate start-up fantasy: Guys with day jobs in the high-tech industry dream of inventing something that will make them millions and free from the nine-to-five rat race. So when their shifts end at the anonymous suburban office park, they roll up their sleeves and loosen their ties and put in another eight hours of work in Abe’s garage. They use hosing lines and tubing from the refrigerator and pull the batteries out of their cars to get the spare parts they need for their contraption. Here Carruth’s dialogue is real and the acting is marginally convincing—we get the sense this happens all the time amongst young entrepreneurs. Keeping us hanging on more, the original aim of this project is never revealed to the audience. What exactly these men intended to build, we never know. So it becomes an intriguing step-up to watch Abe and Aaron puzzle over what exactly their machine is doing and watch their amazement grow as they grapple with the potential of their new invention. This is all well and good, but then Primer goes terribly awry.

I suspect Carruth’s ultimate goal was to make a film that could be a thinking person’s science fiction competitor with the likes of The Sixth Sense or Soylent Green—one of those mind-fuck movies that twists things around and makes one say “ah-ha” when the credits are rolling. Ah-ha so, that guy is actually dead and Soylent Green is people. I get it. But Primer can’t join that crowd because the directorial vision is so obtuse and convoluted, the “ah-ha” moment never happens. Frankly I’d like to spoil the plot for you and tell you what exactly the “ah-ha” moment is, but I don’t quite get it all myself. I understand a little, but only because the Q&A scheduled after the film was not so much a Q&A as it was an opportunity for the speaker to explain to the bewildered audience what exactly was going on in the last 40 minutes of the film. I’ve seen a lot of films with Q&As that follow, but this is the first time I’ve ever been to a film where the audience had to take a moment to ask questions about the basic plot of an 83-minute film. Now, I will say, it is true that I’m more of a “liberal arts” kind of a person than a technical science-oriented type, but in fairness I watched the film with an M.I.T. graduate and he was scratching his head too. How the consequences of this nifty invention become unraveled is just too much to wrap one’s head around.

There’s a lot of promise here, but ultimately Primer reveals itself as a freshman effort. If one enjoys watching a movie as one would enjoy unscrambling a Rubik’s Cube, this may well be an option worth exercising. Otherwise the complexities of this film may be best left alone.

—Nancy Semin

hybridCinema Ratings Guide:

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