Saturday At The Movies: Primer (2004)

If you’re a regular reader of articles on this website, I’m certain you’ve got more than a passing interest in science fiction. Whether it’s film, television, books or comic books, we all love the genre, don’t we?

Of course, there are different flavours of sci-fi. From a light offering, to speculative fiction, to the hard-core stuff, depending upon how you’re feeling on any given day, there’s a taste of science fiction that will surely satiate.

I’ve seen the film Primer a number of times. It’s of the hard-core variety. And boy, does tasting it’s particular brand of sci-fi fill up a mind to stuffing.

Follow me after the jump and partake of the time-jumping main course that is one of the greatest science fiction films that I’ve ever had the pleasure of being confounded by!

primer posterBefore I even get to Primer, first released to audiences at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004, going on to win that festivals prestigious Grand Jury Prize, let me give some brief background on the film’s director, Shane Carruth.

It’s been documented that Shane Carruth, who not only directed the critically acclaimed film, but wrote it, produced it, starred in it, edited it, worked the cinematography, and created the music for it, spent years teaching himself about filmmaking – just so he could make Primer. That’s some heavy-duty dedication right there, something that the auteur and his film’s characters have in common.

Carruth, a college graduate with a degree in mathematics and a former engineer, studied physics texts while gathering $7,000 as his working budget for the film which was shot in just over a month. Many of the actors and set workers were family relatives or friends. It took two years of post-production work to finally complete Primer.

What Carruth created has now, undeniably, gone down in history as one of the greatest hard sci-fi films ever made. It’s been compared to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, not necessarily in it’s visual or philosophical portrayal of science fiction, but in it’s representation of smart science fiction, something that is more science, more truthful than the fiction upon which it is based. At its essence, Primer is just a modern day movie about regular men trying to innovate and advance technology. We know the origin story of Apple Computers, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, building a new kind of computer in their garage on the cheap.

That’s Primer.

Four engineers, with regular engineering day jobs, work out of their garage on evenings and weekends, attempting to innovate technology. Like many scientific discoveries and advances in the history of our society, trying to create one thing (here, a machine that will lessen the weight of objects), an unintended effect is discovered. In the case of Primer, that effect is time travel.

The film not only details the spark of scientific elucidation, but it also speaks to the dangers of forward movement in technology, the pressures of responsibility and the disintegration of close relationships. The trailer for the think piece film asks the important question: What is truly wanted? And the poster’s tagline digs even deeper: What happens if it actually works?

The non-descript, small, grey metal box, created within the confines of a suburban garage by four friends, suddenly holds the tempting possibilities to everything and anything one could ever ask. One of Primer’s more famous scenes, hinted at in the trailer itself, sets up the most exciting, confounding and diabolic of choices. “You’re talking about making a bigger one”, states Aaron, played by Shane Carruth, one the two friends that take the lead on the project.

Primer time travel pictographPrimer is a cold looking and cold sounding film. The look and style is a washed out green – the kind that late night florescent lighting gives everything around it. The sets are cement garages, white offices or metal-doored public storage units. Scientific discovery, it seems, is not a welcoming affair. There are no punches pulled with the dialogue either, no dumbing down to an audience that surely does not have doctorates in physics, philosophy or engineering. As a viewer, you won’t understand what the characters are talking about.

But that doesn’t matter. The fact that this film is hard science doesn’t matter. Those aspects are only for the interested. They’re Easter eggs laced through the story in order to understand the deeper ramifications that time travel has on the plot. There are pictorial graphs on the Internet dedicated to figuring out the timeline of Primer. And there are boasting prizes for figuring things out.

But the essence of Primer remains all-encompassingly human. Amidst all the talk of Meissner effects, palladium, Feynman diagrams, electrons, positrons, photons, gluons, quarks and anti-quarks, that is Shane Carruth’s greatest achievement.

Following Primer, it took nine years for Carruth to release his second film, the critically acclaimed Upstream Color, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2013. Another heady film, we’ll leave that review for a future Saturday At The Movies column.

In the meantime, give Primer your full attention.

2 Replies to “Saturday At The Movies: Primer (2004)”

  1. People look at me as if I’m crazy when I say that one of the best things about PRIMER is that I don’t understand 90% of the dialog spoken. “Why in the hell would you waste your time watching a movie where you don’t understand what’s being said?”

    But that’s part of the genius of PRIMER. These are characters who are talking to each other, not the audience. So the characters don’t dumb down their dialog. Why should they? This is a movie where the characters actually speak and act as if they’re not in a movie and PRIMER is the better for it.

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