Primer (Shane Carruth, 2004)

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Primer, directed by Shane Carruth (2004).

Score: So geeky it’s awesome.

You probably know by know that I love time travel stories, and I don’t care that they can’t really make sense intrinsically. In Primer I found virtually everything I love about time travel stories: the characters are at least a bit genre savvy, there is at least an effort to make it scientifically believable, things get out of hand spectacularly.

Directed, produced, edited and photographed by Shane Carruth, who also played Aaron and wrote the music, Primer tells the story of two engineer friends who work in a garage in their free time and accidentally invent a time machine. From the beginning you’re immersed in technobabble: from scene one you see scientists talking to each other like they would if there wasn’t a camera rolling. I’m not sure if what they say makes sense at all, but at least Carruth tried. I think the portrayal of their following the scientific method works very well, with them trying, failing, correcting, until they get to the final result, and how they go about testing it. I thought their learning what the machine does via the fungus growths was a very good way of showing it, and a very realistic one. How else would they know? It’s not like the first thing they would think of doing was stick a watch in the box, since they were trying to build a room-temperature superconductor. Compared to the most similar thing I read recently, The accidental time machine, it was much better developed and at least the characters didn’t behave like idiots from minute one.

At only 77 minutes, the whole movie is wonderfully economical. Most important things are shown or implied, not spelled out over the course of full minutes. Montages and voiceover do the job of explaining two things at the same time. The movie goes in a frantic rollercoaster, especially from half to the end, and doesn’t wait for you, you need to keep up with it. It’s also one of those movies that require multiple diagrams to fully grasp, you can have two spoilerrific ones here and here. It gets more and more complicated, and with the reduced runtime and anachronic (sort of) narration you’ll be left wondering why some things happened (I have to admit that I’m still at a loss with some things).

The technical aspects are not what one would call exuberant, but bearing in mind that the movie was made with a meagre $7000, it’s surprising how much they could get made.

All in all, it’s one of those overly complicated and geeky movies I love. Probably not for everyone, but if you’re into that sort of mind-screwy, we-can-still-make-it-more-complicated sort of storytelling, this is a movie you want to watch.

***SPOILERS***

I really like how Abe and Aaron go from being extremely cautious to getting inebriated with the power they have and forgetting their caution little by little until shit hits the fan. I feel that time travel stories sometimes miss the point that certain types of time travel give the user a near godlike power, and it’s not always exploited that way, but here it is. They get tangled in the small things, the only thing they get to do is to buy some stocks and try to prevent the shooting at the birthday party, and that’s enough to ruin everything. I think this concept is what makes the movie a gem.

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