A film review by Craig J. Koban




2004, R, 78 mins.

Aaron: Shane Carruth / Abe: David Sullivan / Robert: Casey Gooden / Phillip: Anand Upadhyaya / Kara: Carrie Crawford / Metalshop Worker: Jay Butler / Man on Couch No. 1: John Carruth / Man on Couch No. 2: Juan Tapia / Hostess: Ashley Warren

Directed and written by Shane Carruth

PRIMER is one of those very rare films that – after you have seen it and leave the theatre – you want to rush out and grab every filmgoer you can find and proudly tell them of the movie you have just wonderfully discovered.  This is the very epitome of a “diamond in the rough” film, maybe because I have yet to see a movie work so well that was literally made in the “rough.”  PRIMER achieves so much in its sparse and timid 78 minute running time and, considering the resources that the filmmaker had at his disposal, the film could easily and deservedly be appreciated as a real Herculean effort. 

PRIMER reminds audiences that have a true love for the science fiction genre that the best works in this genre are ones that, at their core, have more ideas and themes and less explosions and omnipotent special effects plastered at every inch of the frame.  Like many of the all-time great sci-fi films (like 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, the first PLANET OF THE APES, and more recent films like the first MATRIX) PRIMER is equal parts alluring, fascinating, and enthralling on a story and thematic level.  It stays with you, even days after a first viewing, enough to prompt you to want to watch it again and again to marvel at its perpetual inventiveness, incredible ingenuity, and strong and demanding themes.  The very fact that this film cost probably a fifth of what the salary of a key grip on a big budget film receives speaks volumes as to why this is a landmark achievement.

PRIMER is a brilliantly realized, minimalist vision.  It was filmed by a former engineer turned self-taught filmmaker, made on cheap 16mm cameras utilizing computer assisted editing and effects, had its catering provided by “mom and dad” and its wardrobe provided by Wal-Mart.  Believe it or not, it was made for the inhumanly low sum of $7000.  No, I did not forget to add a few zeroes at the end, dear readers.  That’s $7000…with four zeroes. 

I have seen many low budget films that have made for memorable filmgoing experiences (Kevin Smith’s CLERKS, which cost only $25,000 and Robert Rodriguez’s EL MARIACHI, which cost even less than PRIMER - $5000).  Yet, PRIMER may be the most precocious, imaginative, and utterly intoxicating debut films of recent memory.  The fact that it could have easily been funded by one credit card is beside the point.  It stands so far apart from other films in its genre that its obvious low budget never once appears as a detrimental characteristic.  PRIMER is what so many other witless sci-fi thrillers that have 100 times the funding are not; it’s smart, crafty, engaging, and enormously cerebral and it wants to marvel us first about its constructs and less about its action and mayhem.  If Kubrick were still alive to make a film with absolutely no money, then I think that PRIMER would have been the result.

The man responsible for this film is the wickedly creative and resourceful Shane Carruth.  He pulls full-on Orson Welles duties for this enterprise.  He's a young Generation Xer from Dallas that wrote, produced, directed, starred, scored, and edited PRIMER, which was mostly shot in his parent’s garage and at nearby locations that he had access to.  It should be noted that – for those that are already suspicious of this film’s lack of fiduciary support – Carruth’s work here never looks cheap or insipidly low budget.  PRIMER looks sensational for what it cost and Carruth definitely has a good directorial eye for shots and editing.  Maybe this is why the film walked away with the 2004 Sundance Film Festival Award for BEST DRAMA.  It is so unrelentingly innovative and inspired that it emerges as a small little miracle of a film, like a little cinematic engine that not only could, but did and did so in inspiring fashion.  If only ignorant people could get by the film’s inexpensive cost, then even they would surely see this work as one that offers ample intellectual rewards. 

On its most basic levels, PRIMER is a time travel film, and it just might be one of the finest ones I certainly have seen.  There have been countless films about time travel and paradox and each of them have dealt with these phenomenon in different ways.  THE TERMINATOR films were more concerned with thrilling action and mayhem first and less about causality.  THE BACK TO THE FUTURE films had a more decidedly humorous take on the dangers of paradoxes (sure, it makes for uproariously funny material to have a teenager who time travels back to the 50’s and accidentally makes his mom have a crush on him, but what if she does not hook up with his dad?  Will that cause him to slowly erase from existence?).  Nevertheless, there has always been a sort of euphoric zeal and enthusiasm about the possibility of time travel in many films.  Yet, make no mistake about it, PRIMER goes out of its way to say that time travel is probably one of the most dangerous things that a human could ever do.  It’s simply not fun, or as one of the characters in the film states at one point, “I can imagine no way in which this thing could be considered anywhere remotely close to safe.”

The film opens with four young men prepping envelopes to be sent out for prospective investors.  There mission is simple: they wish to garner enough capital to help fund a new invention, that they just happen to be building in their garage.  As for the invention itself?  What it is?  What does it do?  At least for the film’s early, opening moments, even the young entrepreneurs themselves don’t seem to have a clue as to what it is and what it may actually do.  All they know is that they have crafted an odd-looking metal box, hardwired with car batteries and controlled with old PC parts.  Their endless tech-talk between them all during these scenes further leads to our suspicions as to what the box is.  They discuss a lot of details about their invention, mostly in convoluted scientific mumbo-jumbo that no lay person will be able to understand, but there is a purpose behind Carruth’s approach here.  We may not understand what they are saying or what the hell that box is, but we sure want to find out more.  The film does a marvelous job immersing you into its story very quickly.

Kind of like Carruth himself, these men are making this device on the cheap…make that the absolute cheap.  They don’t seem to have a lot of money.  They all dress in the same sterile, antiseptic white shirts with black ties and often are forced to cannibalize other appliances for their creation.  At one point they need some platinum so they get it (where else?) from a catalytic converter from a car.  Later, they raid the refrigerator not for food, but for its freon.  Why do they need freon and platinum?  I dunno.  Do they know?  Probably not.  One thing is for certain, though, and that is the fact that Abe (David Sullivan) and Aaron (Carruth) hope that whatever the hell they’ve made will do something that will make them rich.  There is an enthusiastic madness to these childlike nerds and its infectious.

The two men do some tests with the machine.  They place a small object in it, hit a few buttons and tighten a few screws and the box hums to life.  It shakes a bit, makes a large humming noise, and looks like it may be something that could spontaneously explode and destroy the garage itself.  However, it soon stops and the two inspect the object inside.  One of them decides to take it to the local university to get tested and later they soon discover - to their absolute amazement - that there is a severe protein build-up on it.  How is this possible?  Did the machine secret the protein?  Nope.  It seems that object inside of it secreted it itself, but it would take an awfully long, long time for it to do it on its own…months maybe.  The two inventors then realize something - the protein was secreted on the object naturally while it was in the machine and, by their calculations, 1347 minutes in the machine is equal to one minute out of the machine.

Wait a tick!  Does this mean that the box is a time machine of some sort?  It does not even come in the shape of a Delorean, nor is it equipped with a flux capacity.  Moreover, it’s does not even harness 1.21 gigawatts of electricity.  Yet, for reasons that they can't explain, Abe and Aaron realize that they have, indeed, invented a time machine.  They start to fanaticize like little children about the possibilities until one looks to the other and begins to postulate if they could make one big enough for a human being.

Without given away too much of the plot, the two men do, in fact, build “boxes” large enough for humans, the two of them more specifically.  Of course, it would not be spoiling anything to tell you that they do time travel, at least briefly into the past, enough time to invest in mutual funds and the stock market (who wouldn’t?).  They are, of course, very careful when they time travel (they lock themselves in a hotel room afterwards as to not upset the past – or is it the future – and even make cheat notes to themselves on the do’s and don’ts of time travel and how to avoid paradox).  Is what they are doing crazy?  Maybe not.  Just consider how rich they could get on gambling alone.  However, when the two of them start seeing their own doubles, that’s when the odyssey of time travel starts to take a disastrous turn south real fast.

So, time travel works okay in principle, but as PRIMER wisely informs us, what would life be like if, for example, you time travel back one day and then there is a double of you in the past with you?  Can you and your double safely occupy the same sphere of existence?  Well, yes, but then what happens if your cell phone goes off?  Is it a call from the past or the present or the future?  And another thing, which doubles are the real Abe and Aaron?  The ones in the past?  The ones in the present or the ones in the future who time travel to the past and see their doubles?  And…another thing – does time travel make you older or make you sick for that matter?  At one point in the film - after multiple times in the box - Abe turns to Aaron and pleads with him to explain what’s wrong with their hands.  It seems that they can’t write anymore.  They understand letters and words, but they just can’t make out the sentences and write.  Are they real, or just copies of copies of copies?  This could explain their deteriorating grammar and writing skills.  And…another thing – how does time travel effect your diet?  During one of the film’s more darkly funny lines, Aaron tells Abe, “Is there any food, I have not eaten since later this afternoon.”

Some critics have complained vehemently that PRIMER is so convoluted and confusing that it drains out any amount of pleasure that one can have with it.  On the contrary, the very reason this film succeeds so resoundingly is the fact that it is wonderfully confusing.  PRIMER teases and tantalizes its audience to try to make heads or tails of what’s happening to the point where multiple viewings are not only recommended, it’s required

I have seen the film four times now and still can’t quite figure it out.  PRIMER is the ultimate puzzle film, a Rubik’s Cube that does not feel the need to pander down to lazy, audience expectations of a straight, linear narrative where everything is explained.  The film is an ultimate endurance test for those that want to try to piece it together and understand its fragmented plot.  Carruth attains something special here – he does not go for big effects (he doesn’t have the money for that), big action sequences, or big, languid payoffs.  Instead, his film is more concerned with being a haunting and twisted parable of how science can be abused for wrong doing and how two young men can have their lives inextricably altered when they let their own delusions of grandeur get the better of them.  Even the performances by Sullivan and Carruth themselves are also equally nuanced.  They are not seasoned actors, per se, but that is a plus.  They bring an everyman believability to their roles.  They talk, act, and respond to things as real engineers and inventors would.

For these reasons, this little $7000 indie-sci-fi thrill ride just may be one of the most compelling films of recent memory.  It’s as steady, confident, assured, and well-realized as any film from a much more experienced filmmaker and it reveals Shane Carruth as a major new find and talent.  PRIMER never once apologizes for being an abnormal, chaotic, utterly confusing, and a largely impenetrable film about the dangers of time travel of the nature of loopholes, paradoxes, and causality.  PRIMER is the ultimate brainteaser film.  It’s a work that is what great cinema should be – it’s challenging, absorbing, refreshingly different, and hypnotically involving.  It just may be one of the most baffling film going experiences I have ever had.  That, of course, is what makes it a wholly successful hypodermic needle to the heart of the sci-fi genre as a whole.  It’s both remarkably demanding and ultimately rewarding and it reminds us that you can still tell old-school stories in new (and cheap) ways.  It surely is one of 2004’s most stimulating of films.

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