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Review: Primer

Directed by Shane Carruth.
Starring Shane Carruth, David Sullivan, Casey Gooden, Anand Upadhyaya and Carrie Crawford.

We live in a pretty interesting time for movies, from a technical standpoint. They’ve become so cheap to make that any two-bit hack can get a camera, shoot his own feature and edit it on his Mac. And, here’s the best part: Hollywood will actually distribute it. This is both good and bad. You get outright crap like The Blair Witch Project, you get derivative crap like Napoleon Dynamite, and then, on a really good day, you get surprising, impressive stuff like Shane Carruth’s $7,000 debut feature, Primer.

Carruth hides his extremely low budget pretty well. Shooting it on film rather than digital video was a good choice. For the most part, he knows what to do with the camera, too — the colors are terrific, and the film is mostly well-framed, only infrequently suffering from too-eager-to-impress camerawork. Much of the dialogue in the first half hour seems to have been re-edited, with lots of shots obscuring the actors’ mouths and more shots where the voices and the mouths don’t really match up. It’s a common enough trick for avoiding extensive reshoots, but it’s not usually used as pervasively as it is in Primer‘s first act. The result is a little bizarre, but given the film’s budget, you have to overlook some of the film’s technical quirks.

The worst parts of the movie should have been easier to avoid: the narration and the music. Most of the time, narration in movies is totally unnecessary and distracting, and that’s the case in this film as well. The fact that the narrator talks like Kiefer Sutherland’s character in Dark City, all halting and monotonous, makes it even more annoying. The music — also by Shane Carruth — struggles to be eerie, but comes off sounding like someone who doesn’t know how to play any instruments screwing around with the “spooky” sounds on his MIDI keyboard. Fortunately, this failed attempt at a score is generally pretty spare and ambient so it doesn’t get in the way too much. The fact that the distributor didn’t put up a few bucks to hire a proper musician to re-score the film before releasing it just boggles my mind, but I guess not doing it left the film intact as Carruth created it. Even Carruth has expressed some regrets regarding the making of Primer, though, and it’s hard to imagine that the music isn’t one of the first things he’d have fixed if given the opportunity.

Of course, the most important thing about Primer is its story, and as luck would have it, it’s also the best thing about the film. Abe (David Sullivan) and Aaron (Shane Carruth) are half of a group of engineers who are working on some kind of small-scale anti-gravity device in the off hours. At some point, Abe makes some peculiar observations that lead him to put his watch in the machine, and he notices that when it comes out, time seems to have passed faster inside the small metal box than outside. Abe runs off about the possible explanations for this for a bit before Aaron spells it out for us:

“You’re talking about making a bigger one.” And so they do. I’m not one to call a movie hard to follow. Ordinarily, people call a movie hard to follow because they are too distracted by their laundry or talking to the person next to them to bother paying attention to the plot. Then, when they have missed effectively half the movie and can’t tell what’s going on, they say, “This movie is hard to follow.” But Primer is one seriously hard-to-follow film. While I appreciated the fact that the characters speak to each other as if they actually know each other and as if they actually understand the words coming out of each other’s mouths, more clarity early on regarding the names of the main characters might have been nice, for one thing. It took me a bit to figure out that the other “Abe” and “Aaron” the protagonists talk about in various scenes are their doubles — themselves from some point in the future.

As for the technical dialogue, I read Discover and Scientific American often enough to have grasped (if not fully understood) what the characters talk about most of the time — enough that I was impressed by how much research went into the script. I got lost at one point when Abe discusses the growth rate of some fungus (procured from his day job) that he had put into the device, but the point was clear: it was growing faster than expected. The scene helps capture the sense of geek enthusiasm the characters have for their project, but people who are less nerdy than myself might want to shrug off the dialogue and pretend it is an endless stream of Star Trek-like technobabble. Most of the big words go away after about the half-hour mark, however, as the story concentrates on the more philosophical ideas raised by its premise, following them to their logical conclusion. Or a logical conclusion, anyway.

The script, like Memento before it, works better as a puzzle to be solved than as a finished picture. But, unlike Memento, Primer does not give you all the pieces. That is, it doesn’t show you a number of events that would have made the story somewhat clearer. The film may give you enough of the pieces, but I would have to see it again to be totally sure, and, one of these days, I probably will. My guess is the story is being told chronologically, which, in a time travel movie where guys are jumping back a few hours or a day at a time, is bound to get confusing. But don’t quote me on that, because I might be wrong.

Primer is a fascinating puzzle to observe, to try to solve and to discuss, and Carruth is a promising new talent. At times visually reminiscent of George Lucas’s own first film, THX-1138, which was made on a budget of $777,000.77, Primer is only limited by its miniscule budget in how successful it is on a technical level. But how inventive the film is on its $7,000 bodes well for any film Carruth might make on a real budget. Considering how opaque the story is, though, Primer is bound to turn off some viewers for many of the same reasons I enjoyed it. Four people walked out of the movie when I saw it — two middle-aged couples, to be specific — before the plot had even gotten underway, perhaps scared off by the techie dialogue. Their loss. Some people just like the airplane to fly into the hangar a little more linearly, I suppose.

(Originally published at Gapers Block on November 5, 2004. After a second viewing, I only loved this film more. It is without a doubt one of the smartest science fiction films of the past decade.)

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