Friday, July 16, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Primer (2004)

"How many times would it take, before he got it right? Three? Four? Twenty? I've decided to believe that only one more would have done it. I can almost sleep at night, if there's only one more..."

"...Slowly and methodically, he reverse-engineered a perfect moment. He took from his surroundings what was needed, and made of it something more ..."

-A frightened Abe (David Sullivan) debates the pitfalls of amateur time travel and the illusion of control in Shane Carruth's Primer.

The word primer may be defined in a couple of ways. For instance, a primer is an elementary book or text that introduces and prepares a reader for an understanding of a particular topic.

Or, a primer could be the first layer of paint applied in a project, before the final layer goes on.

Shane Carruth's award-winning, low-budget mind-bender Primer (2004) concerns two ingenious, ambitious young men in Dallas, Abe (David Sullivan) and Aaron (Carruth), who accidentally discover their garage workshop.

These two engineeers then proceed to play with time itself as though it were a primer, a dress-rehearsal that they can use, re-use, and practice with until they get things exactly the way they desire.

In other words, Abe and Aaron keep re-living the same incidents -- slathering on a new layer of paint, over familiar events, as it were -- certain that after five, ten, or even twenty iterations of the same event (like a party...), time will finally see things their way. They believe they can actually master a moment; control the direction of time and produce beneficial outcomes. Maybe not at all once. But eventually.

A downside is that Abe and Aaron's method of time travel may not be even remotely safe. After several sojourns back in time, the men begin to spontaneously bleed out of their ears...and they can no longer hold a pen steady when they try to write notes. Worse than the physical ramifications, however, Abe and Aaron eventually lose all trust in each other.

What if the other guy is using the time travel mechanism (a long box that seems like a coffin...) to his own personal advantage, and is keeping secrets about it?

"What's worse," asks Aaron, "
thinking you're being paranoid or knowing you should be?"

which was made for a meager $7,000 dollars, is a cinematic head-trip of the highest order. It compellingly follows two characters who are "out-of-their-depth" according to the dialogue, and places them into frightening situations in which they must debate causality, paradox, and "recursive" loops. As a consequence, Abe and Aaron promptly find themselves in a world where evidence of their sloppy time-travel handiwork is everywhere. For instance, one night the two men run into a prospective investor who has already used their "box" (the time machine) and is now in some kind of mysterious vegetative state.

Why? The reality in which this man's trip to the past (Abe and Aaron's present...) occurred no longer exists. It's been erased from Aaron and Abe. Yet the man is still present in our world, though now he never even made the trip in the first place. He's just a time-time travel byproduct...a side-effect of the process.

Time travel is described in the film "as the most important thing any living organism has ever seen," and yet Abe and Aaron hardly treat their momentous discovery with appropriate respect. They make mistakes, they break their own rules and all of existence could be at stake.

For instance, several days in a row, Abe and Aaron travel back in time several hours (the limit of their machine's capacity) and buy stocks that double in get rich quick. Similarly, Aaron fantasizes about punching his white-collar boss in the nose, and then going back in time and preventing himself from doing it. These are not exactly philanthropic endeavors.

These men are simply children who "play" at life, and believe no mistake can't be undone. All of life is just a dress-rehearsal, a primer, and there's always time to make things right on the next go-round. To state that they are both short-sighted doesn't exactly make the point. These guys are on a juvenile power trip. "We know everything, okay? We're prescient," Aaron suggests.

But Abe comes to fear the power they wield, and attempts to use a secret "fail safe" time machine to undo everything he and Aaron have done...but Aaron is, at heart, a shark, and has already anticipated Abe's second thoughts. Abe's discovery of Aaron's true nature makes for one of the film's most unsettling sequences, which plays like a commentary, perhaps, on human nature.

Although it features no action scenes, no special effects, and no name actors, Primer remains one of the most exhilarating, imaginative motion pictures I've seen in years. The film is alive with smart, overlapping dialogue and a spine-tingling sense of anticipation and fear as Abe and Aaron delver deeper into the mysteries and pitfalls of their surprise discovery. Primer is unfailingly smart, and as a rule, we movie critics never like to admit when a movie is smarter than we are.

This movie is smarter than I am.

I had to watch Primer twice to piece (most of) it together.

Well, that's not exactly true. The time travel mechanics and scientific aspects of the film are much more than "basic mechanics and heat 101," but the emotional and moral aspects of the film are plain enough for general audiences to comprehend easily on a first viewing. The film takes the audience from the thrill of inventing something new, something that could change the "world" to the disappointment that, in the wrong hands, nothing important changes. Even time travel is just another get-rich-quick-scheme, a short-cut for men who feel disenfranchised by the establishment and want to leap-frog, illicitly, into the realm of the millionaire.

In a way, time travel in Primer is almost comparable to nuclear power. Yes, it is enormously advantageous for those who wield it, but it boasts troubling side-effects. In particular, it creates byproducts that are not so desirable. In nuclear power, it's spent nuclear fuel, depleted uranium and other wastes that are created through fission. In time travel, it's unexpected consequences: people without a past or future (like the vegetative man), or a possibly murderous duplicate from a non-existent past who is locked away in the attic and trying to break free.

But what Primer does so well is this: It makes us realize that nothing is for free. There's always a cost to power, nuclear or otherwise.

Primer opens with Abe, Aaron and two other men toiling in the garage, using their expensive equipment to create something new. Anything new, really. There are shots of the men laboriously preparing envelopes at the kitchen table for prospective investors in hopes of generating interest...and a budget for their work. And there are domestic scenes here too: of a patient wife, and a new baby. The pressure to "get rich" and support the family is palpable, and so the viewer quickly becomes invested in the travails of Aaron and Abe. They don't want to be office slaves their whole life, tethered to a predictable routine in which they inevitably fail to achieve their dreams. Aaron and Abe -- both engineers -- are also facing a unique timetable of extinction. "You know what they do with engineers when they turn forty?" a technician jokes. "They take them out and shoot them..."

Since time is running short for these men to make their mark in the world (as well as their millions), time travel presents Abe and Aaron an opportunity to escape the 9-to-5 drudgery so many of us face...and yet these are clearly not the men you would want to discover time travel, accidentally or not. Accordingly, the film shifts moods many times as it races through its 78-minute running time. It goes from a feeling of giddy discovery to a fear of the unknown, to downright paranoia, and the result is that when the movie ends, you feel like you've been holding your breath the whole time. You've gone from identifying with Aaron to actively fearing him.

Primer is truly that most mythical of cinematic beasts: the sci-fi movie that fans always claim they long for and dream about. One about human nature, one featuring a brilliant script, and one that puzzles out every ramification of its premise with inspired cleverness. In every sense (and aided by Carruth's able, almost cinema-verite-style cinematography), Primer feels alarmingly real. There's nothing stereoptypically Hollywood about this movie; even the time machine device (explained in laborious, wonderful detail) looks like something created in a garage, not by a special effects wizard.

And the implications of time travel, as explained by Primer, are terrifying.

If you and your best buddy discovered time travel today, would you trust him (or her) to monkey around with all our yesterdays? Or as the movie's tag-line puts it: What happens if it actually works?

Is anyone thinking that far ahead?


  1. Echoing John Wheeler, a good friend of mine who has a Ph.D. in physics said, "Anyone who claims to understand Primer after one viewing does not understand Primer". How true. I had to watch it three times and then follow it with a diagram. It was a joy to watch--each time!

  2. Peter:

    You friend is absolutely right. There's no shame in admitting it (as I do in my review): this movie is not easy to understand, and one viewing just can't do it justice.

    Writing about Primer this morning made me want to watch it again today. It's really a terrific movie, and I wish more people knew about it. I can see why it has been compared to 2001: A Space Odyssey and other classics (though for some reason, I kept thinking John Carpenter's Dark Star...)

    Thanks for the comment, my friend.


  3. Wonderful write-up of a truly smart discourse of time travel and human nature. It baffled me the first time I saw it -- even after going through the extras for explanations, I knew I had to re-watch it. The other aspect that makes it fun, and yet disturbing, is that there no kindly and wise scientist to ask meaningful questions of. Like, "just because we can, should we?" You just have a pair of smart enough, ambitous engineers and nary an ethicist in sight when you undertake this 78-minute head trip. Where's Professor Barnhardt when we need him?

    Still, that is the strength of this small film. It generates a universe of quandaries entirely on a smart, shrewd script and a shoe-string of a budget. Ever see the operational flowchart of the time travel in PRIMER? It's a wild thing to try and comprehend. Thanks so much for this great cult review, John.

  4. Anonymous10:59 PM

    It was the second viewing when most of it came together for me too. A great visual marker is the refrigerator. Back in May, when I first read your review of Primer here on the blog, there were more ideas in there about your own next low budget film. Something has happened since then to make you remove that info. Was it something I said?


  5. So, doesn't time travel make thinking ahead irrelevant? Whatever we thought up as a restriction or countermeasure would always already be known by a time traveler who could always do something to us prior to our awareness of time travel. Indeed, we could never even be sure that some of us trying to restrict time travel weren't already time travelers who are participating in the discussion in bad faith. Get rid of linear time and the capacity to "prepare" for something becomes moot.

    It makes one's head hurt if you think about it too long.

  6. Late to the party again...I only recently discovered this blog I will be most likely be late to most discussions. Some observations:

    Got to admire anyone who freely states "This movie is smarter Than I am" I too came to this conclusion after my THIRD viewing. I guess that places me on slightly below average.

    Carruth's ingenious take on the ethics of time travel is a shining example of why I love movies. A director who does not pander to the viewer. That kind of confidence never ceases to impress, and as we all know is quite rare.

    Not one of the characters choices seem contrived or 'plot driven' and their fates quite believable.

    I can only agree with your use of words like, exhilarating and imaginative. Overused by most scribes, they just might be understatement in this case.

    I know when I'm in the presence of 'greatness' and this movie is great.


  7. Anonymous9:36 PM

    I heard it took years before somebody actually figured out all of the time travel. I saw a quote that Shane said that somebody finally got it. Does anyone know where I can get the book?