It’s rare that one gets to see a film that cost $7,000 but that’s precisely what Primer cost to make. Primer is a high concept science fiction drama that is heavy on ideas and doesn’t pander to the mainstream. Using technical dialogue and realistic sounding science, the movie doesn’t make any attempt to open itself up to the masses or explain itself in layman’s terms. As a result, Primer is a film that is at times impossible to follow but when it’s at its best, it’s a film that opens up some and explores some fascinating ideas about causality, fate, consequence and friendship. Shane Carruth acts almost as a one man crew with credits as actor, writer, director, producer, editor and composer.
The plot focuses on the efforts of four engineers who work for a large corporation but on the side produce circuit boards which fund their own inventions. Two of the men break off and develop a strange machine for which a purpose is difficult to ascertain. After some preliminary tests they discover that a watch placed inside the machine appears to come out with much more time passing than on the outside. Wary of the concept and implications of their machine, they keep it a secret but slowly begin to experiment with its possibilities with strict instructions that causality must not be affected.
At a time in which mainstream films often spell everything out for the viewer and dumb down in order to make themselves as profitable as possible, I really liked the fact that Primer didn’t pretend to be simple. Time travel is a difficult idea to get around and if it doesn’t make your head hurt then the film is over simplifying the idea. There are no flux capacitors here. I understand very little about the science behind Primer and while it might all be nonsense, that’s not the point. Average Joe (me) is unlikely to understand the science involved in any sort of time altering machine. The film taps into the work of the fantastic physicist Richard Feynman, using some of his theories and diagrams to explain its methods. Much like the film, while I don’t always understand what Feynman is talking about, I often enjoy attempting to.
Although I think it’s a bold and admirable decision to avoid dumbing down, it did make for a difficult watch and I can’t say that I was gripped all the way through. I particularly found the labyrinthine latter stages almost impregnable and was at a loss to describe what happened in the final twenty minutes. Primer strikes me as the sort of film which would benefit multiple viewings but unlike say Memento, I don’t really want to revisit the film as it didn’t engage me enough due to the barriers put up by its science and my own ignorance. When a film demands multiple viewings, it has to earn the right by being interesting and engaging enough for the viewer to want to do so. Primer left me so perplexed at times that I’m not sure I want to spend time watching it again, even if it is only 77 minutes long. I enjoyed the discussions about causality much more than its effects and would have preferred a greater portion of the film was given over to theory rather than theory in action.
Considering the film cost $7,000 it looks pretty good. It’s obvious that it’s very cheap and the camera is perhaps an area in which more money could have been spent but on the whole it isn’t a bad looking film. I’ve certainly seen much worse for more money. The movie was story-boarded to within an inch of its life in order to save on shooting costs and this is successful in creating several good scenes. The acting is nothing to write home about but the use of mainly family and friends means that Carruth gets grounded, realistic performances from his cast and there is very little in the way of over-acting which is a bonus. The direction and scene design is done very competently by the first time, almost amateur director. Occasionally he shoots characters who talk with their back turned to camera but generally the movie is filled with interesting looking shots and attractive camera angles. The score is also very accomplished and is again down to the handiwork of Carruth.
Primer is a film that has much to like. From the fascinating themes to grounded central ideas and relationships, it’s a film that has a lot going for it. It’s also a remarkable film debut from its polymath creator Shane Carruth but unfortunately, it gets muddled in its own science and is so true to its ideas and wariness of dumbing down that it can be far too puzzling at times and as a result it’s very difficult to say that I enjoyed it.