Reviewed By Erik Childress
Posted 01/18/04 15:25:12

"For Cults Who Do Not Need, Nor Have, Any Answers."
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

SCREENED AT THE 2004 SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL: When you are working with very little money and want to make an impression on the indie circuit, you film a screenplay full of brainy ideas, dip it in a jar of sci-fi and let the audience think for themselves. When you have no money for special effects you force yourself to avoid the easy pleasings of your average moviegoer. Soon your film becomes a cult hit, appreciated more by the small handfuls because they can feel superior to the mass of non-geeks who just don’t get it. If they did there wouldn’t be anything to latch onto and if that’s the case it must not be worth anything cause everyone understands it. Such is the unfortunate case of the cult medium. Critics want to tell people about small films they may have otherwise missed. Cults want things just for themselves. Primer is for the cults.

Many will likely compare Primer to Darren Aronofsky’s debut, Pi, instead of staring down where its obvious influence resides back to Tarkofsky’s Solaris. Four engineers gather together after their 50+ hour work weeks to come up with their own “it”. You remember the “it”, don’t you? Neither do I. But they all want to create the next big thing, so they talk about copper cables and how they can save money on stealing parts from refrigerators to create a wire-filled box in the garage. None of them knows what it does and they sure as hell aren’t letting us in on it.

The first 40 minutes resembles Robert Altman conducting a science class on speed dial. Technical jargon could all be made up as far as the audience is concerned, but amping the techspeak up to a level that would have Stephen Hawking skip a wheel, maybe you should begin your actual story a little earlier. When the box’s purpose reveals itself, the brainy sci-fi angle we’ve all been anticipating begins to take shape. Since the original Solaris took 45 minutes to finally launch into outer space, perhaps our patience will be best rewarded.

Turns out they’ve discovered their own key to time travel. By building a bigger and better mousetrap, if they camp out for a specified amount of time in the storage room with the box, they will wake up so many hours prior to their nap and be able to relive that time. This proves mighty beneficial to finding the right stock to play or finally removing the rhetorical nature of the “what would you do…” question. One problem – there are now doubles of themselves running around who must stay on the same track to keep the continuum of their plan.

It’s here where Primer truly betrays its potential for greatness by sacrificing riveting storytelling for unbelievable obtuseness. Paranoia and mistrust never materializes until a final scene. Two of the friends are completely forgotten about. The concept of the outright duality of the friends’ paths is all but ignored. And the newfound miracle of improving their wealth and changing history is an afterthought that audiences shouldn’t be expected to fill in for themselves. It’s not intellectual. It’s just poor storytelling.

Primer has its treatment in the right place if not it’s complete screenplay. At only 78 minutes it feels as long as Solaris and someday I expect Hollywood to get a hold of it and fashion it for a broader spectrum. The ideas may seem like afterthoughts once someone with a hankering for suspense and fast paces gets a hold of it, but films like Minority Report and Donnie Darko have proven that you can have it both ways and not leave any movie fan out in the cold. Primer goes its own way and only a few people are likely to respond favorably to it.

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