Unfortunately, some movies you write off as bad or overrated don’t just disappear from the zeitgeist if you ignore them—some do, but not all, meaning turds like The Boondock Saints will always be with us. Primer was one of those movies I hoped would go away, but didn’t. People kept mentioning it in the context of great sci-fi movies, but I think what firmly cemented it in the canon, at least in my mind, was Chuck Klosterman’s essay in Eating the Dinosaur declaring Primer the finest time-travel movie he’s ever seen. “Dammit,” I thought as I read that sentence. “Now I have to give it another chance.” I decided I would eventually have to give dullsville Primer another viewing to see what I’d missed.
Like with most things in my life, though, I put this off for as long as possible, much like my intention to someday read One Hundred Years of Solitude; I’d get to it eventually, when the time was right. However, after seeing Primer-director Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color last year, I realized there was probably something to this guy (you can read my review of Upstream Color here).
So, Primer. [You’ll have to excuse me for having my perspective on this movie unintentionally colored by Klosterman’s insightful essay and subsequent things I’ve heard Carruth say about it. I’ll try my darndest not to plagiarize.]
Primer is a time-travel movie about a couple of white-collar engineers (played by director Shane Carruth and David Sullivan) who inadvertently invent a time-travel device in their garage. Much like the discovery of penicillin, their invention is accidental, mysterious and a little bit mind-blowing, even if its uses initially seem limited. This isn’t an omnipotent time-travel machine like the Delorean or the T.A.R.D.I.S. (I’ve never actually seen Doctor Who but I’m pretty sure that’s what the T.A.R.D.I.S. is); it can only accelerate time for the objects inside of it or send them back to the moment at which the machine was turned on. When they build a prototype large enough to fit a person, they can only travel back to the beginning of the day they powered on the machine, so there’s no chance of the film exploring trite time-travel dilemmas like “would you go back and kill Hitler?” and all that. However, even with the machine’s limited use, there’s still plenty of ideas to explore—and room for chaos to flourish.
Although they begin by cautiously using the machine to do benign things like make money on the stock market, their carefully orchestrated rules of cautious use quickly break down. There are only two people with access to this machine, and even though they’re friends, they have issues trusting each other not to abuse it. Even more interesting, though, is that they can’t even trust themselves, either. Because they are essentially creating a situation in which multiple copies of themselves exist concurrently, each man has to trust that his temporally displaced counterpart wouldn’t do anything that he wouldn’t do—something that is essentially unknowable, as the film quickly makes clear. And this is where the film gets interesting: even if you think you know yourself and how you would act, could you really trust that an exact copy of yourself would behave in the same way? What if he were in a situation you hadn’t foreseen—how do you know what he would do and what he would say?
There’s a telling scene in the middle of the movie where the two engineers think they spot one of their potential investors spying on them. Even though they had seen this same clean-shaven guy earlier that day, he appears to have several days’ growth of facial hair. After they chase him down, they confront each other and ask who told him about the machine. It’s not so much them interrogating each other, though, as it is interrogating themselves, asking if there’s even a possibility that they would have considered sharing the secret of their invention machine with an investor. That’s the rub here, because if that possibility exists, then in a world where infinite possibilities are given the chance to play out, anything can happen—you or one of your duplicates could have taken any action you would’ve had even the most remote chance of taking.
Because Primer quickly expands from a tight time-travel movie into one that’s unimaginably infinite, it’s easy to get frustrated, and this is where the movie lost me the first time I watched it. I stopped trying to understand what was happening and just gave up. In revisiting it, though, that almost seems to be the point: you can’t keep track of what’s happening. The situation is inherently uncontrollable. The minor outbreak quickly becomes an epidemic.
And to think, Primer sparks all of these interesting ideas from a simple premise and a budget of $7,000.
Now, this isn’t to say the film is perfect, because it isn’t. Despite not letting myself get tripped up over the questions of which version of which character was doing what, I honestly don’t understand what’s happening with the plot near the end of the film. There’s some vague storyline about a shooting at a party, the depiction of which I feel Carruth botched. Worse, this mangled subplot surprisingly turns out to be the climax of the movie, segueing right into an equally rushed and confusing cliffhanger ending. Depictions of chaos aside, I would’ve liked a little bit more clarity in the finale. I think this was more a problem of bad filmmaking than artistic ambiguity.
Still, despite its weak finale, I found that I enjoyed Primer much more this time around. Sort of like that car crash scene in Fight Club, the movie works best when you just let go of the steering wheel. Whereas on my first viewing I didn’t care enough to piece it together, when I finished it this time, I actually had the desire to re-watch the film it so I could better understand its plot. So, I concede that the zeitgeist was right about this one: Primer belongs in the canon. If only I could go back and tell my younger self how to better appreciate it.
Above: One shot of many depicting Sullivan and Carruth talking while in their work clothes.
This is possibly the most inaccessible film I’ve watched outside of the opaque madness that is David Lynch’s Eraserhead. I’m not sure if a background in physics or coding would have afforded me greater insight, but we are kept in the dark as to who anyone is or what in the hell is going on for nearly the first twenty minutes —almost the entire first quarter of the film. While there are some films that double back to infuse meaning on the context-less opening sequence(s), this is not really the case here, and that’s a red flag for me.
After a while, it becomes clear that two corporate drones in the tech sector are working on a garage project dealing with energy transference, or gravitational effects on matter, or…something. After a lot of permutations and long division, we have two schlubs in possession of a time travel device. They begin to do stuff with it, like snag stock market fluctuations from the future, and enact adolescent male power fantasies at house parties.
What I dislike most about the film is that it wants to be hard science fiction; the rules of the techno-magic and long-winded explanations over how shit works takes precedence over things like characterization and plot. I will give the film makers credit for amping up the plausibility factor of the time displacement rigs and prototypes, as they look cobbled together from existing technology. The magic trick that the shallow plot and near-arcless characters are built around is first introduced as an unaccounted for side effect as opposed to a “eureka!” moment. But who are these people? Why do we care? These are fundamental questions for any piece of fiction, and they go largely unanswered here, in favor of John Byrne-flavored paradox porn.
I can appreciate a film that doesn’t beat me over the head with a theme or spell everything out, but I also don’t want to be pressed into service to provide my own character profiles and sense of closure; I’d rather just go pen my own story at that point, thank you very much. We do get served some Glass Key–style fraternal friendship fraying (Alliteration Alert!), but was there any warmth or trust between these two idjits for us to mourn over in the first place? This film lacks narrative ambition, the stylistic flourishes to the scene editing made me wonder if my copy of the film was corrupted, and everything plays out in claustrophobic (but not stylishly so) scenes deprived of atmosphere. Having said all this, I have to award any independent film endeavor bonus points for refusing to include a road trip and awful college radio tracks. This was a fine skeleton of a film, but I would have preferred if some flesh had been packed on to provide a greater purpose. C
Above: The aforementioned fraternal friendship fraying of Sullivan (left) and Carruth (right).
At its core, Primer is a cool concept, I suppose. It’s also a neat film in that it had next to nothing for a budget, and the filmmakers managed to patch something together, which is an admirable feat. Unfortunately, that something is a Frankenstein’s monster hodge-podge of soldered computer components these filmmakers all lifted from work at Geek Squad. That’s not a joke.
Primer has no characters. It has no real plot. What it does have is scientific physics-babble – the kind of discussions that are a real labor of love amongst a very small group of people. For the people who get it, I imagine this is a very charming movie. It’s something to ponder when the end credits roll. It’s something to pontificate inquisitively in the shower the following morning, annoying the missus who happens to be brushing her teeth in the nearby sink with jargon neither she, nor ninety-some-odd percent of the population, will understand.
Unfortunately, I’m one of those ninety-some-odd percent, so when the end credits scrolled across the screen, I was left thinking about how to take the concept for this movie, time travel and the creation of duplicates, and make it better. The result? I came up with a movie I call ‘Primer Ib’. It’s about these guys who stumble on time travel technology that they use to create a sustainable source of beef. In this inspired spin-off, our heroes keep sending a cow back in time, harvesting the duplicate created in the present, so they can keep their stock of beef products up to snuff at the restaurant they run in town. Things take a turn for the worse when a fly accidentally gets trapped in the time machine with the cow.
To be fair, however, I didn’t dislike Primer. I viewed it the way I view an inside joke amongst a group of enthusiastic friends. I just… had to be there. For physics fans, I wouldn’t be surprised if this movie turned out to be a real hit. One can tell, just from watching the scenes where our “protagonists” are talking amongst themselves about what they’ve stumbled upon, that there was giddiness behind the core concept of the film, a deeply felt joy. In that sense, this film lies heavily within the boundaries of hardcore science fiction, rather than the more character/plot-oriented genre of “speculative fiction”.
Still, credit should be given where credit is due. Primer had an estimated budget of a measly $7,000. I know of Hollywood films with budgets exceeding several hundred million dollars that have subjected audiences to far more mind-numbing degrees of incoherence.