Saturday, August 10, 2013

Primer Movie Review

“The permutations were endless.”

I saw it in cinemas nine years ago, but all I remembered was that I liked it and thought it was a unique and confident first feature from a man named Shane Carruth. When his second feature played Sundance and then received a small theatrical release earlier this year, I was reminded that I should take another look at Primer. This second viewing I’m sure I paid closer attention, especially knowing that the details, plot intricacies, and timelines are utterly confounding, but even having some idea of what was to come doesn’t really help you get a firm grasp on what’s happening.


To say Primer is a science fiction time travel movie is a gross oversimplification that calls forth memories of H.G. Wells and visions of complex machines that whir and sputter and get up to 88 mph. But Carruth does something much less grandiose and quieter. He turns the perils of time travel into an extended metaphor for the trials and tribulations and occasional pitfalls of human ingenuity and invention. The phrase “time travel” is never even uttered during the film’s brief 77 minute running time.

As much as you think you might be able to pay as much attention as possible to understand what happens, I don’t even know that multiple viewings would clear up all the confusion. And I don’t mean to suggest confusion as something negative here. For this is not a story of plot and exposition, but rather one of mood and human interaction. Carruth has a great ear for the dialogue of R&D rooms as Aaron (Carruth), Abe (David Sullivan) and their two associates work on several minor inventions and patents trying to hit on something that will bring in real money. They speak in fragments of technical language that mostly doesn’t seem to mean much in concrete terms but gives an overall impression of the daily slog and grind of physical mechanics and inventions. Carruth’s screenplay expresses the way in which many of history’s greatest discoveries were made by accident.

Once Aaron and Abe stumble upon what appears to be a time travel device and they decide to test it out and make a small monetary gain in the stock market, taking all possible precautions to avoid paradoxes or general confusion, it isn’t long before they start subverting their own ground rules for other types of gain. When they discover that a third person may be using the device they run themselves in circles trying to guess at possible future reasons either one of them might have told someone about it.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the way Primer runs circles around your mind. No doubt you can find endless theories and explanations as to how everything fits together, but that takes some of the real fun out of puzzling it out for yourself in the quiet moments after the movie finishes. Primer is the next logical step following Memento, which opened three years earlier and doubtless exerted a strong influence on Carruth’s development of this project. It’s indie no frills filmmaking at its finest – a combination of deft technical skill and sound philosophically challenging material.

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