Of all of the micro-budget indie successes of the last twenty years, Shane Carruth’s Primer is probably the most impressive. Carruth made one of the smartest and most challenging science-fiction films ever for a reported $7,000, using family and friends as his actors and his own home for many of the locations. The end result gets more quality per dollar than just about any film ever made.
Aaron (Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) are engineers that have degrading shirt-and-tie day jobs, but are working on something else in the garage at night. The film’s extensive Wikipedia page suggests that their little box started out as some kind of anti-gravity device, but soon they discover that it has other properties. First they realize that it’s a self-sustaining power source, which would already be the most important scientific discovery in at least a century. Then they prove that time functions differently inside the device, which leads to “the most important thing that any living organism has ever witnessed”: a box large enough to hold a person would act as a time machine.
At that point, Primer becomes the only film I’ve ever seen that I would describe as “incomprehensible, but in a good way.” By traveling back in time, Aaron and Abe create multiple versions of themselves in the same timeline: the ones that originally lived during that period, and the new versions that have traveled from the future. So on one level it’s a mind-bending task just to determine who we’re seeing and when they came from. (“Are you hungry?” Aaron asks at one point. “I haven’t eaten since later this afternoon.”)
But more than that, it becomes clear that Aaron and Abe are virtually omnipotent: they can make money at will on the stock market or by betting sports, they can manipulate anyone they want – including each other – so subtly that it’s impossible to detect. If anything ever goes wrong, they can go back again and fix it, erasing all mistakes from reality. In some ways Primer is a classic mad-scientist horror film; although neither Abe nor Aaron are insane per se, they have more power than they can sanely understand, because their power subverts the very thing that allows humans to understand the world – causation itself.
Carruth, who studied to be an engineer prior to getting into film, was a stickler for getting the science right in his movie. Carruth chose himself and his friends to act in the film in part because he didn’t trust professional actors to deliver his technically dense dialogue. Most forms of movie time travel ignore the fact that time and space are linked, but “the box” takes that into account. One of the most difficult-to-understand scenes in the movie is a relatively simple one: Abe describes how the very first time trip was set up, such that Future Aaron and Future Abe would never encounter or interfere with their past selves.
That same technical precision carries over into the filmmaking. Among the many impressive technical achievements is that the entire movie was shot on 16mm film, thus every shot had to have the delicate construction of a bonsai tree – any film wasted would be money wasted. Every time you watch one of Primer’s infinitely patient long takes, remember that Carruth could only afford it once, with no mistakes and no do-overs. It’s virtually impossible to do that with a digital camera, let alone on film. If there is one nit-pick to be had with Primer, it’s that the sound design sometimes makes the dialogue difficult to hear (sound is notoriously hard to do well on small budgets), but the HD version of the film available on iTunes and elsewhere corrects even that issue.
Primer is simply one of the smartest films ever made. Unlike many smart films, it doesn’t lord its complications over confused viewers; this is not a film which is trying to show off. Instead it is a labor of love, whose intelligence is focused with an intensity that would make even Stanley Kubrick jealous. Much like Aaron and Abe repeatedly refine their timeline until completely mastered, Shane Carruth refined his movie with the patience and precision of a diamond cutter. The end product sparkles with the same beauty.
Reviewed by Mark Young