#213: Primer (2004)

Feel the Force

Primer is the purest science fiction film I’ve seen all year. It’s also one of the most discombobulating I’ve seen all my life. Right, where do I begin…

With his name plastered all over the credits in every capacity from actor to director to producer to screenwriter to editor to cinematographer to composer (breathe), there’s little doubt that first-time filmmaker Shane Carruth is a Renaissance Man. Unfortunately, he has channeled all of his efforts into the modern-day equivalent of The Emperor’s New Clothes. Primer looks and feels everything as cheap as its’ $7000 micro-budget. With all the hallmarks of an amateur production too: questionable sound, dodgy picture quality, crude performances, and dubious editing. Eventhrough all of these technical limitations, it didn’t stop Primer from winning the Grand Jury Prize at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival.

The movie’s screenplay is incomprehensible. It is deliberately, frustratingly obtuse. With an academic background in mathematics and work experience in engineering, Carruth’s script is dense and incomprehensible. Deliberately confounded and obtuse, it’s a real test on the audience’s patience and attention span. The upside of this is that if no one can piece together the semblance of a coherent narrative, it’s tough to point to plot holes. Without spoiling the plot, Primer’s central premise revolves around time travel – in particular, it’s about two engineers who accidentally invent a time machine, then start using it for personal gain, and begin to understand the dangers and casuality that can result from time travel paradoxes.

Told throughout by an unrelenting spew of “techno-babble”, mirrored with condescending, explanatory narration which purposely takes aim to stupefy audience, the sci-fi stock story is unoriginal and uninspiring; having been projected more compellingly elsewhere in film with the likes of La Jetee, The Terminator franchise and Back to the Future. 

Primer‘s protagonists, Aaron (Shane Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan), are uninteresting and charmless in the extreme. We don’t care about them, their invention, or its potential profitability. To further exacerbate matters, neither Carruth nor Sullivan is an accomplished thespian, and their wooden attempts to bring these characters to life are utterly unconvincing.

Maybe I’m being a tad harsh on Carruth and his first foray into filmmaking. Considering it’s non-budget and unique presentation, Carruth is an uncompromising, veritable filmmaker worth looking out for, with his second project now in pre-production it is set to be one of the most anticipated second features since Jeff Nichols’ maddening Take Shelter.

Recalling my opening statement, it’s essential for any science fiction flick to be cryptic, bewildering and extraordinary. Primer is all of these things, but so many complexities come at the expense of entertainment. Some have argued that Primer might start to make sense after a second or third viewing. That is a possibility, but – considering I didn’t care enough watching it first time around – it’s a hypothesis that I’m not willing to test.

★★☆☆☆☆
IMDb it.

Primer is available everywhere. Like, right now.

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