A lot of films have tackled the subject of time travel. Some have been good. Some have been bad. Some have been funny. Some have been painfully earnest. But they've never been very believable. And they've never been made for $7,000. And that's why the new film Primer deserves your attention, even if it ultimately leads to your confusion.
The Grand Jury Prize Winner for Drama at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, Primer was written, directed, shot, produced, scored, and edited by newcomer Shane Carruth, who also plays the lead character and may very well have served as both key grip and Best Boy for the production in addition to providing the bagels, the orange juice and the $7,000 budget. While the prospect of a self-styled auteur tackling quantum physics in his film debut immediately strikes fear in my heart, it turns out Shane Carruth and Primer are direct beneficiaries of their own limitations. As the film unfolded it occurred to me that if something like this were ever to happen, this is the way it would happen.
Carruthís Aaron is one of four young high tech engineers who have thrown their entrepreneurial lot together, working out of Aaron's garage at night hoping to patent something that will allow them to quit their day jobs. Though the setting is suburban Dallas, Carruth has perfectly nailed the larger Silicon Valley zeitgeist. We know these guys. We know they are much smarter than us about certain things. We don't pretend to always know what they're talking about. But we know from recent history they are perfectly capable of inventing things that change the world. Carruth casts them as neither nerds nor heroes, but simply the guys you see every day driving VW Jettas and standing in line at Starbucks.
A healthy chunk of the film is spent depicting the logistical headaches and personality clashes of forming a startup company in your garage. The foursome has already quarreled and broken into two factions by the time Aaron's partner Abe notices some unexplainable byproducts of their still undefined invention. It appears to defy linear time. Though I don't recall the exact words "time machine" being spoken, any look of terrified wonder or majestic swell of the soundtrack, this is indeed what they have invented and it's only a matter of time before they submit themselves to human testing. I'm not going to tell you what happens next. Not merely to avoid spoiling the film, but because I'm not sure I can explain what happens next. Primer is not Memento, or even Darren Aronofsky's ìPiî which is certainly a fair comparison. It is not a thriller. It's spookier then that. Even in its non-linear confusion, Primer scores points. Because I believed the characters I just assumed the failure to comprehend was my fault. As it would be if I entered a conversation on string theory or hedge funds in real life.
Because Carruth was stuck with real life, including unrecognizable actors, homemade props and affordable locations, I enjoyed a great little chill that this could be going on even as we speak. Understated - perhaps to a fault - Primer is worth 78 minutes of your time.
© 2004 - Casey McCabe - Air Date: 10/13/04
USA - 2004