Primer (2004) – Shane Carruth

Time Travel Movie Doesn’t Want To Admit It’s A Time Travel Movie

July 7 2013 Categorized Under: Movie Reviews No Commented
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Primer (2004)
Directed by: Shane Carruth
Starring: Shane Carruth, David Sullivan, Casey Gooden, Anand Upadhyaya, Carrie Crawford, Samantha Thomson, Chip Carruth

Star RatingStar Rating (out of 4)

Primer - Box

The Box. You opened it. We traded stocks.


There’s a good movie inside Primer somewhere, waiting to get out. It has a lot of promise – two engineering types (not unlike dudes you might meet at Lockheed or Raytheon) invent things in a garage in their spare time, and one day quite by accident invent a time machine, a box partly made out of spare parts from around the house. They set up rules for their time traveling, but eventually greed and delusions of godhood cause the pair to break them, entangling them in a bizarre web of paradoxes and conflicts with alternate egos. Added up, it sounds like sweet music to an engineer’s ears, but the end product is more complicated than cool, more tedious than thrilling.

The movie’s two main characters, Aaron (Carruth) and Abe (Sullivan) come across believably enough, as their dialogue exchanges are filled with the kind of casual tech-speak that you would expect to bore the hell out of anyone who doesn’t have a degree in electrical engineering. The strange device they create requires argon gas infusions and pieces of Aaron’s refrigerator. They bicker with one another over schematics and fret over what it is their new invention actually does. But this kind of thing works in the movie’s favor; it lends a certain authenticity to the picture and fits within the do-it-yourself vibe and low budget (the movie was reportedly made for $7,000).

Where the movie begins to falter is in pacing. It takes almost half the film to establish what it is that the box actually does, and when the characters start using it is about the time when the movie flies off the rails of storytelling. Nothing that happens to Abe and Aaron is told to the audience with any care. Sure, we understand the physical effects such as bleeding ears and losing the ability to write, but the rest of what happens to our inventors is delivered in a haze of choppy editing and cryptic half-explanations almost delivered as an afterthought. Not only is the plot almost impossible to decipher, it seems like it was done intentionally (for example, before an important scene reaches a finish, it ends abruptly and another scene begins). I am reminded of those contests where the object is to write the most obfuscated C code; Primer seems to work in almost this exact same manner. It’s one thing to handhold your audience, it’s quite another to put the pedal to the metal long after your passengers have fallen out of the car.

Some have compared the picture to Aronofsky’s Pi, but truthfully, Pi‘s plot is more involving, works within its budget, and has serious matters at stake. In contrast, what I can gather about the stakes of Primer is one man’s desire to punch out his boss, and another to separate an unwelcome visitor from his shotgun. I expected bigger plans from genius engineers (who never even use the words “time machine”, now that I think about it). There’s also the breaking of the movie rule “show, don’t tell.” For example, instead of talking about an offscreen character having a day-old beard (important to the particular scene in question) it would have been better to show it.

For all this potential, it’s frustrating. I don’t think a big budget is necessary for a coherent storyline. Although, it is said that the film plays by its own rules and begins to make sense if you read the various Cliff’s Notes on the web. But that’s the same thing that caused me to skip Biology and just photocopy all the notes in the library – if the notes are all you need, why go to class? Primer is like that professor you had in college – smarter than you are, but he can’t teach worth a damn.

- Bill Gordon

Buy Primer on DVD

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