Written by Bill G on March 22 2013
Directed by Shane Carruth
Starring Shane Carruth, David Sullivan, Casey Gooden
(out of 4)
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. Eventually greed and delusions of godhood cause them to break their own rules, entangling them in a bizarre web of paradoxes and conflicts with alternate egos. The machine itself is a box made out of spare parts around the house and is placed inside a rented storage building. Finally, the specifics of how the time travel works are possibly the most believable for this sort of thing. Added together, it sounds like sweet music to an engineer’s ears, but the end product is more overly-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 credibility 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 movie to establish what it is that the box actually does. When the characters start using it is about 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. I am reminded of those contests where the object is to write the most obfuscated C code; yes, Primer works 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. Despite an interesting scene involving the details of traveling back in time a day and making money in the stock market, the bitch of it is that Primer really does require a bigger budget. 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. Instead of a voice-over describing multiples of Aaron fighting one another over a confusing low-budget video montage, it would have been better to use extra money on a split screen.
I guess that’s what’s most frustrating about Primer – it has me yearning for aspects of a production (bigger budget, clearer plot) I would normally not care about or even be against in principle. Logically speaking, 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 shit.
- Bill Gordon