- Year: 2004
- Director: Shane Carruth
- Starring: Shane Carruth, David Sullivan, Casey Gooden
Primer is one of those movies where the director, screenwriter, producer, and lead actor are all the same person. Now, sometimes when this happens (well one time), we get Citizen Kane. Other times, we get the disasterpiece that is Tommy Wiseau’s The Room or the films of Ed Wood.
Made on just a budget of $7,000, Primer is a short independent film that attempts to tackle the possibility of time travel in the real world. Aaron (Shane Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) are two scientists who work in their garage in their free time, completely ignoring their obligations to their significant others. In one of their experiments, they discover the possibility of time travel by accident and work to make it feasible.
*Disclaimer: Primer is a very short film (77 Minutes), so don’t expect my longest review.
Look, I love that they’re trying to show how this could happen in real life. Nothing about this world is contrived or cinematic, but there’s just too much science talk. There’s displaying scientists realistically, and then there’s flat out boring an audience. It’s cool that Shane Carruth was an engineer and wanted authenticity, but unless you too are a science whiz, you’re going to zone out, and these are the first ten minutes of the film. There’s a little thing filmmakers and authors try to do called ENGAGING THE VIEWER. There are interesting things that happen eventually, but when you fill scenes with tenuous science talk, you’ve convinced the audience otherwise. It’s not like these scenes gain anything on repeat viewing either.
So they eventually create a coffin-esque time machine that will fit a person, but you can only go back to a time when the machine existed, and the machine travels in real time. If you want to go back six hours, you’ll be inside for six hours. When you go back, it creates a double of you in that time period, which becomes the real you after the original inevitably enters the machine. Of course, the doubles aren’t perfect as Abe and Aaron lose some use of their hands, and Aaron’s ear starts bleeding. Think Multplicity, but deadly serious… and if you haven’t seen Multiplicity, there are two hours of your life you’ve made better use of than I have. (Seriously, I love Michael Keaton, but what was he thinking?)
Abe and Aaron mainly use their time machine to day trade stocks and bet on March Madness games. This was the movie deemed the most original sci-fi movie since 2001: A Space Odyssey by one critic, yet it features the same Get Rich Quick scheme used by Biff Tannen in Back to the Future Part II.
I’m being too harsh, though, because there are some really good things here. At one point, Aaron’s cell phone goes off and Abe freaks out, but Aaron shrugs it off. Abe is the more methodical one, caring about every detail and making sure nothing goes wrong. Aaron, on the other hand, is more free-spirited and looks at the big picture. These are fairly subtle characterizations, as the story is more about time travel than the time travelers, but they are done well.
The cell phone puzzle is one of the most fascinating things in the whole film. Aaron and Abe wonder if Aaron’s phone and Aaron’s double’s phone are simultaneously going off, or if only one phone will be reached.
This is actually something Carruth researched, and it actually would depend on the cell phone carrier, so there’s no definitive answer. Most time travel movies focus on the big picture and how timelines will be affected, so seeing the little things be affected is pretty interesting.
The time machine traveling in real time is also different, and it adds a layer of risk. Are you willing to give up a day of your life to go back a day? Aaron makes an offhand comment about living 36 hour day (going back six hours and living another six). We don’t see the long term effects, but it would most likely lead to a shorter lifespan, which is surely something they have considered.
Of course, both Aaron and Abe have created back-up boxes, just in case something goes wrong. In addition to their own extra travels, they find out that Abe’s girlfriend’s father has also used one to presumably stop Abe’s girlfriend Rachel from getting shot at a party. Abe tries to go back in time and stop himself from ever discovering time travel, but he discovers that Aaron too has already gone back.
It honestly gets kind of silly how many different things are going on at once. Everyone has gone into the past multiple times, and it’s complex, but not in a way that enhances the movie once you figure it out. Heck, people have even drawn up charts and graphs to explain both the timeline and the science of the movie, but by the end, Primer can’t decide if it wants to tie everything together or leave it philosophically ambiguous.
With a small budget, obviously the camera work isn’t going to be spectacular, but it’s usually fine… except at night. The night scenes just look awful. If they couldn’t afford a better filter, they should have just changed the nighttime outside scenes to daytime.
Even with the bit of interesting characterization they get, both lead characters are pretty awful people, only using a world changing invention to make money. They don’t even experiment with how far they can push the limits—they just immediately settle into cheating the stock market and sports betting. Aaron completely ignores his wife and family, which honestly he didn’t seem to care about much before anyway, and Abe’s girlfriend only exists to be a plot device.
Clearly this is a film that did blow a lot of people’s minds. For me, Primer is just so left-brained in its methods that I really can’t get into it. There were points here and there like the cell phone that were intriguing, but it’s more of a puzzle than a story or experience. While a great movie like The Usual Suspects is also a puzzle, it’s a fascinating story first. Primer is a puzzle first. Make of that you will.
Story (11/30 Points)
I’m sorry, but this isn’t really much of a story. I was actually less interested in what was happening the second time through. There are some great ideas at play, but the character arcs are tired, while trying to be complex to throw you off.
Cast (17/30 Points)
David Sullivan does a good job as Abe, bringing a few good character moments, and director Shane Carruth carries his scenes just fine. The supporting cast is really dull and no one even makes an attempt to stand out.
Experience (10/25 Points)
Like I said, the daytime scenes are fine, but the night scenes look awful. Since it’s a film about mainly two characters, the personal feel of the direction is just fine. I know it’s made on a minuscule budget, but the background music has no melody or flourishes at all. Even the score is left-brained.
Originality (12/15 Points)
It looks at time travel in the real world, which at least has potential. Things not brought up in other time travel movies are looked at in detail, and whether or not the execution is great, it’s still a different look at things.
FINAL SCORE: 50%
Primer is a niche film, and I’m definitely not a member of the niche it’s playing to. Like I explained in earlier reviews, I’m not really big on the science of time travel movies. It’s honestly better that movies like Back to the Future kind of brush over the science in favor of a good story. If Primer sounds like something you’ll love, there’s a good chance it will be.
Next week, I’ll be taking at the final film on the list, Looper from 2011.