PRIMER (2004) – HAPPY NEW YEAR and yes, I’m just childish enough to pat myself on the back for that play on words in the title of this blog post. With that out of the way I know I’m late to the game when it comes to Primer but my own skepticism about it made me keep it on the back burner in terms of priority movies to watch.
Since New Year’s Eve into the New Year is the closest any of us ever get to time travel I figured today was the perfect time to review this controversial film. Primer was made for just $7,000 (really) by Shane Carruth, who starred, wrote, directed, edited, arranged the music and pretty much did everything but wash the cars of his collaborators.
The film’s 2:1 film ratio has become legendary and decisively proved the benefits of having your cast repeatedly rehearse scenes before letting the cameras roll. Film stock ain’t cheap and anything an independent producer can do to save on it is pure gold.
Shane Carruth stars as Aaron and David Sullivan portrays Abe. The pair are engineers who – on the side – run a tech business out of Aaron’s garage. As a side effect of a project they are working on the two discover a means of time travel.
Don’t roll your eyes and assume that Primer is just another use of this well-worn concept. I made that mistake and put off watching this excellent and thought-provoking movie for far too long.
You can ignore reviews which claim the opening half of this 77 minute film is boring. Literally even the most casual exchanges of dialogue have bearing on the overall story. It’s not really a spoiler at this late date to point out that the very beginning of the film is NOT the “first run” of the events in the storyline, as a viewer discovers later.
What too many reviewers dismiss as the characters muffing their lines in the early minutes are really hints that one or more of the participants are experiencing the events for the second or third or fourth time.
That is just one of the ways that Primer experiments with the mind-boggling chaos one can unleash by tampering with time. Not just Doctor Who and Back to the Future but even movies like Donnie Darko and 41 are child’s play compared to the way this flick toys with your mind.
Initially Aaron and Abe simply use their discovery to make subtle day-trading profits off the stock market but eventually a kind of Treasure of the Sierra Madre dynamic of paranoia and greed develops between them. Intentional deceptions mix with the unintended consequences of temporal meddling to embroil our two main characters in a mess that becomes more and more muddled.
The mathematical possibilities regarding the scenarios that we see unfolding (and repeating) become impossible to calculate when people that Aaron and Abe apparently showed their time machine to long after the first-run of events in the movie seem to be using the machine to come back from Abe and Aaron’s future to manipulate events.
Our two lead figures can only guess at the motives and goals of those people since they are reacting to events Aaron and Abe haven’t even experienced yet.
And that leads us to another unfair criticism of the film. Many negative reviews trash Primer for the way that plots and counter-plots of the participants are often diverted or thwarted before they can fully evolve.
My opinion is that Primer simply takes advantage of the fact that by the year it was released moviegoers were so well-versed in the various types of time-travel plots that have been redone over and over again that we don’t need a peepee -caca level play by play account of what’s going on.
If you prefer, think of those brief sketches we get as if it’s Flash Fiction or “story-telling Haiku” where familiarity with the formulae and tropes allows for an economy of exposition.
Is the man from the future trying to save the life of a loved one regarding a violent incident at a party? Is he in league with a future version of the movie’s unseen villain Platts and is he instead trying to save HIM? Is future Platts trying to steal the time travel tech from our protagonists just as he stole a previous invention of theirs?
The movie becomes like a 3D chess match and – I will avoid spoilers here – I disagree with critics who say the ending makes no sense. That ending actually RESOLVES any potential loose ends that a viewer may think have been left dangling.
Primer may or not be the Citizen Kane of time travel movies but it definitely employs a fractured narrative structure as effectively as the Orson Welles masterpiece. Don’t make the mistake I made – it’s not just empty hype – this movie really IS the brain-teaser that other movies only pretend to be.
Hell, I understand Shane Carruth’s name was really Carruthers at one point but his repeated time meddling caused him to lose the final three letters. (I’m kidding.) ++
FOR MY REVIEW OF ANOTHER INDY CLASSIC – SIX-STRING SAMURAI – CLICK HERE
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