The big buzz at this year’s Sundance Film Festival was about a little film, shot in Dallas on 16mm for a tiny $7,000 budget, using a largely nonprofessional cast and crew. Primer won the Grand Jury Prize and the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize and went on to largely positive receptions in Cannes, Nantucket, Seattle, Boston, and Toronto. Compared to the bloated budgets of Hollywood spectaculars, the sheer feat of having produced a feature film under these circumstances, whether good or awful, is impressive. What’s really amazing is that the final product is one of the most intriguing, intelligent films of the year.
Primer tells the story of four friends, Aaron, Abe, Phillip, and Robert, who work by day as engineers at large, faceless corporations and spend their free time in Aaron’s garage, developing personal projects in the hope of hitting upon an idea profitable enough to allow them to become their own bosses. As the film begins, their most successful product to date is an error-checking device that they are able to sell a few at a time, enough to provide a little extra cash but not to make a significant impact on their lives. But then Aaron and Abe hit upon something new, something so promising that they quickly forget their former allegiances and cut the other two out of the loop: A superconductor they’ve constructed has unanticipated properties—items left inside the metal box in which it runs come out appearing to have spent far more time inside than they have.
They know they’ve hit upon something important, but what? What are its applications? What are the dangers? Abe take it upon himself to find out, building a bigger box, like a coffin constructed of many various-sized metal plates, and discovers that by remaining in the box for a while, he can move backward through time, emerging at the other end a few hours earlier than he entered it, where he can coexist simultaneously with the other Abe who hasn’t yet entered the box. He shares the discovery with Aaron, who asks if Abe thinks it’s safe to be using the box, to which he replies, “Aaron, I can imagine no way in which this thing would be considered anywhere remotely close to safe.” Aaron, naturally, is wary, but his curiosity gets the better of him. The two begin to explore the possibilities of being in two places at once and starting out their morning with full knowledge of everything that will happen that day. They’re cautious at first, concerned about interfering with the timestream, but soon they’re playing the stock market and casually moving back through time to rearrange events in ways more advantageous to them.
Aaron is played by first-time actor Shane Carruth, who is also the film’s first-time writer/director/producer/composer/cinematographer/editor. Abe is played by David Sullivan, also making his film debut. They and the other actors imbue their genius-geek characters with naturalism, rattling off complex and arcane technical jargon with the ease of people who think in those terms more easily than they do the banalities of everyday life. The grainy texture that comes with blowing up 16mm to 35 helps, giving the film a documentary feel. Primer has none of the fancy special effects or distracting CGI images that we’ve come to associate with contemporary science fiction, relying instead on the classic sci-fi model of setting up a complex ethical dilemma and then watching the characters squirm around in it. Toward the end, the plot begins to double back in time in ways that aren’t clearly spelled out. It’s sometimes difficult to guess the sequence of events or even say for certain exactly what we’re watching, as we lose track of just how many Aarons and Abes there are moving around at any given time. I’ve seen the film twice now, and while it was easier to grasp the second time, I still walked away with unanswered questions. Some find this a fault, but it’s rare enough that a film gives us anything to really think about that I didn’t mind. Primer isn’t for everyone, but for those who enjoy a complex, tricky plot (the obvious, and already overused, comparison is Memento), it marks the debut of an exciting new talent
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Primer / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()