Monday, June 27, 2011


My good friends at nobulljive recommended Primer to me several months ago, with the guarantee of it messing with my mind (as perfectly illustrated on this chart, which is far too large to fit in this post).  I was immediately intrigued and, as happens all too often, I promptly forgot about it.  As luck would have it, Netflix delivered Primer to me just in time to save me from my summer movie blahs.

If you have never heard of Primer, let me preface my description with these words: anyone who claims to completely understand this movie is a liar.  I wouldn't say that this is 2001: A Space Odyssey-weird, because almost all of that movie makes perfect sense.  Primer follows logic, but it is a logic that loops inside itself so many times with the same actors playing different permutations of themselves that viewers can get lost in the complexity.  The good news is that the movie is designed that way intentionally, so your enjoyment doesn't ride on a complete comprehension of all aspects of the plot.  I'm usually a stickler for movies making sense (radical, I know), but I thought this was an interesting movie with an overarching concept that was designed to rely on only the highlights of the plot.

If you haven't seen the movie yet and are intrigued, go watch it because the rest of this post earns a SPOILER ALERT, not that it will really help you understand the plot more than you would otherwise.

Aaron (Shane Carruth, who also directed, produced, wrote, made the music, and edited the film) and Abe (David Sullivan) are full-time office workers that run a part-time technology side business from their garage with a couple of friends.  For the past few months, the group has focused its efforts on the production of a computer component, and the other guys like the extra cash this gets them.  Aaron and Abe, though, are tired of the monotony and decide to go ahead developing their own invention on their own.  It's never too clear what this invention is supposed to do, but it looks homemade and sounds scientific when the two men talk about it.  Honestly, you probably won't pick up much information from their conversations; the dialogue is mostly techno-babble, incomprehensible to most folks.  What becomes clear, even through their high-falutin' language, is that the machine is behaving in ways Aaron and Abe never expected.  The device puts out more energy than it takes in, which should be impossible.  It can even power itself for a while if you remove its power supply.  Oh, and mold grows at an accelerated rate on the machine.  How accelerated?  About a thousand times faster.  Well, that's weird, but what does that mean to a couple of guys working out of their garage?  Dude, that means that their device manipulates time.  They built a freaking time machine in their garage!  Awesome!  But how should they use it?  What would you do with knowledge of the future?  What would you do with more time?  Would you be able to keep track of your life if there were two of you walking around, simultaneously?  What would this do to your body?  Maybe time travel isn't as easy as Doc Brown made it out to be, and maybe the choices you make have more significance than just ruining a bully's life.
Suggestion: don't go back in time to make it with your mom.

What makes Primer such a cool movie is how authentic it feels.  The shoestring budget and amateur tinkerers might seem out of place in a movie --- where are the lab coats and all the shiny equipment? --- but this is how most inventions happen.  The fact that their discovery was inadvertent is even more realistic, like the discovery of penicillin, among many other famous things.  The scientific jargon is pretty dense, but it's easy to get the gist of their conversations --- it is obvious that something is acting odd, or that something unexpected has happened.  The language makes the characters seem smarter because it is not dumbed down, and the audience gets a sense of accomplishment by following a plot that they might not understand a word of; it's a risky, but interesting, choice that pays off shockingly well.
Time travel is not as glamorous as you think

The acting in the film is nothing special.  David Sullivan appears to be the main actor in the first half of the film, with Shane Carruth becoming more prominent as the film goes on.  Neither actor does a great job emoting, neither is particularly witty, and neither is particularly likable.  What they do well is deliver their jargon-heavy dialogue convincingly.  These two sound like people who know their science, which is far more important than having the ideas for the device based in reality.

Carruth's directing is not fantastic either, at a glance.  Once the plot gets going and you start to see how serpentine the script is, though, the direction becomes more impressive.  Seemingly irrelevant details eventually gain meaning and the confusion of the characters mirrors that of the audience.  I don't know if Carruth is a good director, but he certainly is clever.  I really liked the script for the film, too.  It wasn't terribly clever (aside from the excellent line, "I haven't eaten since later this afternoon"), but I cannot get over how fascinated I was by these lines of dialogue that I had limited (at best) comprehension of.  That's not usually how I work, I like to understand my movies.  The fact that I enjoyed the film without completely understanding it speaks volumes about the pacing and the general story (to me, anyway).  Time travel involves paradoxes, and I don't think I have seen them handled better in any other movie.

The tiny budget, limited acting skill, and imposing dialogue might make you think twice about seeing Primer, but it is definitely a unique film experience.  Would it have benefited from a little more clarity?  Maybe, maybe not.  Would it be so intriguing if I understood it completely when it ended?  That's kind of iffy, too.  Could the dialogue have been more enjoyable?  Certainly.  But this is a plot-driven movie with a very cool plot, and that is enough to overcome the film's rough edges.


  1. kitchen sink sci-fi is a new and untapped market, i loved this film for it's atmosphere and feeling more than the plot, story, dialogue, acting, infact having seen this movie several times i still don't understand what exactly happens but i know the effect it has on me (aside from making my brain want to explode from thinking about it)

  2. Yeah, I've given this a second viewing and it didn't make any more sense to me. It's still pretty cool, though.

    I like the term "kitchen sink sci-fi." If you can think of any other titles that would fall in this genre, let me know; I'd like to see more like this.

  3. i have been trying desperately to think of another movie i might class as kitchen sink sci-fi but i think the problem might be that i just invented it in that comment.

    the closest i could get to picking a second film in the genre is the spanish movie Timecrimes from 2007 which whilst not being as good as primer is definitely more accessible.

  4. Well, congrats on creating a new genre classification, anyway.

  5. thank you. maybe even last years MONSTERS could be considered somewhat kitchen sink sci-fi.

    if not then i guess i'll just have to write one.