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Review: Primer (2004)

April 19th, 2010

Primer is a complex and, at times, very confusing film that earns a hearty recommendation from me.

The best way to watch a movie is almost always when you have no idea what to expect.  Going in with little more than a two line plot mini-summary leaves you open to surprise and, occasionally, that surprise is pleasant.

It was so with Primer, a 2004 independent film that was a darling of the Indie Film Circuit.  It won the Grand Jury Prize and Alfred P. Sloan Prize at Sundance, the Best Writer/Director at Nantucket and the Best Feature at the London/Sci Fi.  It was also nominated in all the major categories for which it was eligible at the 2005 Independent Spirit Awards.  For a film made on a budget of about $7,000… well, let’s just say that newcomer writer, director, producer and lead actor Shane Carruth has got some game.

I do feel that going into the movie with very little background was important in my enjoyment, so I’m certainly not going to play too much of a spoiler herein.  I’ll keep this review pretty high level and light on detail.  And with a film that was as dense on the scientific jargon, keeping it high level is sometimes a necessity and not simply a luxury.

Primer is a mix between a sci fi feature and a thinking-man’s thriller.  As a bit of a science nerd, I think the thing I appreciated the most was Carruth’s dedication to maintaining at least a modicum of scientific integrity in his draftsmanship.  The film definitely has a gritty and perhaps even realistic feel.

Read more, after the jump.

This authenticity is often lacking from sci fi movies largely because they don’t try to ground the science, instead many rely on complex special effects.  Working on a minimal budget, that crutch wasn’t in the cards here.  Instead, Carruth decided early on to maintain a strict, little man view of production and discovery.  In interviews, he noted that scientific discovery often happens when folks aren’t expecting it or as a byproduct or side effect of an intended result.  Many of these discoveries also take place in the garages of engineers, rather than the more prominent labs and research facilities.

The production quality is decent despite the low-budget and sometimes grainy feel. That nature is both intended and a consequence of a low budget.

The basic and simple plot summary drives from that scientific focus.  The leads (Carruth and David Sullivan) are two friends who are engineers at corporate shops by day and the heads of a four-man small design start up at night.  When trying to develop a device that reduces the weight of objects, they stumble upon a means of time travel.

Yeah, I know, sounds out there; however, the science behind it is not actually so bizarre as to completely ridiculous.  In fact, one of the core premises of the time travel device (or “box”) is the limitation that one can travel back in time to the moment that the box was first turned on.  There actually is some grounded, though experimental, physics which states that one could send atomic matter or information back in time using a machine that has been turned on during the entire time span traversed.  The basis for this is still in the theoretical stage and it is entirely different from the transport of relatively massive (i.e., non-atomic sized) objects or living persons, but it’s something that’s at least in the conversation.

Primer does actually utilize some concepts that parallel this.  Notably, the idea of requiring the machine be turned on and exit and entry at nodes.  Yes, it’s very hard to actually follow the jargon and the science that supposedly underlies the time travel (nor do I really find the idea of a device that makes objects weigh less all that much more plausible); nevertheless, there is a gritty, unvarnished way of discussing, filming and set designing the whole thing that tricks the viewer into thinking there is some legitimacy there.

The actual mechanics of time travel in the box are quite simple, unlike the plot and scientific discussion therein. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

The plot, like the science, is pretty hard to follow.  It’s not entirely linear and facts are revealed at somewhat staggered moments.  Furthermore, there are certain details that are intentionally obfuscated to reflect the disorientation of time travel by paralleling plot confusion.

Nevertheless, there is solid acting and a sophisticated and thrilling script (even if you’re not always 100 percent sure what is going on).  The film is set in the suburbs of Dallas and it is clear that it was filmed on site at various suburban homes owned by folks who probably were in the cast itself (Carruth cast a bunch of family members).

The film is going to be a bit overwhelming for some in just how dense the language is at times and how intricate the plot is.  In fact, I’m willing to bet most people probably enjoy the first viewing of this movie a lot less than their second go around.  But for those who can follow along, it’s a greatly enjoyable trip.

All in all, I give primer a big thumbs up as a little known, but stellar film.  Yes, it’s a bit hard to follow, but you get a lot out of the effort you put into it.  I really am eagerly awaiting Carruth’s next offering and hope to be able to see it soon.

The Trailer

Watch the whole film, c/o Google Video

Note that the video quality isn’t exactly spectacular on this, so I recommend giving it a rent. Or, if you’re a Netflix member, you should be able to stream it here.

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