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Primer

Reviewed By Robert Flaxman
Posted 05/13/05 10:27:53

"Prime entertainment."
5 stars (Awesome)

Though it clocks in at just 77 minutes, Primer contains more story, ideas, and intensity than many films twice its length. Itís a bit of a slow starter, yes, and itís pretty dense Ė and the way everything packs in like that makes a first viewing something of a head-scratcher. In truth, though, writer/director/star/Renaissance man Shane Carruth has made one of the best first efforts of all time.

There is certainly something to be said for a film thatís easy to understand. When it comes to science fiction, though, there often seems to be a clamoring for just the opposite. One need only look at the popularity of Donnie Darko, a film which cannot be fully comprehended without having the director explain it, to prove this. Primer has a similar impenetrability at first, but unlike Darko, all the details are there, and careful analysis of whatís given makes all the pieces fall into place.

The basic plot is this: Aaron (Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) are typical bored office workers who have started up a garage business with their friends making computer accessories. Meanwhile, the two of them are working secretly on another project. Whether they hit upon it accidentally at first or whether it was always the plan is unclear, but the upshot is that Aaron and Abe discover that they have invented a functioning time machine. After a couple refinements in the design, it is capable of transferring a person back in time.

As interesting a concept as time travel may be, merely featuring it does not make a film automatically good. As Roger Ebert is fond of saying, in slightly different words, the how of a movie is more important than the what. Fortunately for Carruth, the how of Primer is at least as interesting as its what Ė and possibly more so, since the what can be difficult to understand at many points during the film.

Indeed, much of Primer is really not about time travel at all. The plot is a conduit for Carruthís real intention, the desire to explore different aspects of human nature. The question is not what a time machine can do Ė itís what human beings choose to do when presented with one. The choices of Aaron and Abe are the crux of the film Ė the time machine is necessary for those choices to exist, but the examination of the choices themselves is more important than the device that created them.

To reveal the full extent of those choices would involve significant spoilers, however, so I will refrain. Suffice it to say that much of what is done with the machine is done without the knowledge of at least one of its creators. I wonít say what here because the film deserves to be seen unspoiled, although if you can grasp its every plot point the first time through without any exterior help, you deserve a medal. (I think I have the film down after one viewing, but Iíve been running it over in my head for a day and checking various theories posited in the forums on the filmís official website.)

The big selling point for Primer when it first came out was the filmís miniscule cost - $7,000, about level with the notoriously low-budget El Mariachi. Primer was shot on film but features no professional actors, a lot of donated props, and mostly opportune locations. Itís true, though Ė this sure doesnít look like a $7,000 movie. It may not feature any special effects in depicting its time travel, but if the word had instead been that it cost ďonly a couple million,Ē I doubt anyone would have blinked.

The acting is a bit rough, especially early in the film, where the attempts at overlapping dialogue Ė ďrehearsed improv,Ē as Carruth calls it on the DVDís directorís commentary track Ė donít especially work; the actors sound kind of unsure of themselves. After that, though, itís fine Ė the emotions are underplayed in places, but itís nothing that harms the work as a whole.

Even more beneficial to the film are its pace and tone. Primer starts in spare, more-Mamet-than-Mamet fashion, with its ambiguity where details are concerned and dialogue that manages to be simultaneously rapid-fire and vague. As things progress, however, the tension ratchets up even though the style never really gets any more ornate. The faster-paced confusion of the filmís middle third builds up a nervous energy that releases when the final third hits; the last portion works at explaining the rest of the film, though it takes a while to sink in. All told, the film manages to keep you on the edge of your seat even as youíre not entirely sure if you know whatís going on, an impressive achievement.

The questions Carruth raises are the most impressive achievement of Primer, though. Most science fiction films donít have much of a brain; that this is one of the smartest in years and comes from a first-time writer and director is really saying something. Perhaps thatís because the science fiction angle is more or less Carruthís secondary concern. I wonít lie Ė thereís plenty of clever time-travel plot here, which certainly was a big draw for me. Itís worth noting, though, that Carruth isnít too interested in convincing anyone that the box could really work. The few details given involve batteries and argon gas, which hardly tells us very much. Sure, pretty much any story involving time travel is going to have to invent a method, but Carruth barely even tries. The point here, however, is that he doesnít need to.

How the time travel works is unimportant. Carruthís characters react very differently to it, however, and evolve over the course of the film. Again, I take pains not to say very much about this, which makes praising it a tad difficult, but I feel safe in saying that the actions taken by the characters are as interesting as the time travel itself Ė and when you find time travel as interesting a concept as I do, thatís a big deal.

Primer is a little slow at first, but itís like a perpetual motion machine Ė once it starts going, it never stops. Not after the climax, not after the credits, not after itís been simmering in your head for days. Itís probably the most immediately addicting sci-fi film Iíve ever seen; with a compulsively watchable premise and a lot more to say about it than any other film would be expected to, itís both smart and beguiling, a perfect one-two punch.

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