cast: Shane Carruth, and David Sullivan
writer and director: Shane Carruth
74 minutes (12) 2004
Tartan DVD Region 0 retail
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
Primer appeared in the US in 2004 and has now finally received a DVD release in the UK (despite this being a region-free release and the film winning the 2004 Grand Jury Prize at Sundance). Made for around $7,000 by writer/ director and jack-of-all-trades, Shane Carruth, Primer proves that you don’t need special effects to do sci-fi as long as you’ve got a decent script.
Aaron and Abe are engineers. Working from their garage in their spare time, they stumble across a new form of technology. Initially this technology seems to possess some strange characteristics such as being able to work without an external energy supply and it seems to lower the mass of anything it enters into contact with. Immediately the boys realise that they’re onto something, but they don’t realise quite what that something is until they work out that they’ve managed to build a kind of time machine that allows whatever it touches to travel back in time instead of forwards. Abe builds himself a machine and travels back in time, only revealing this fact to Aaron when he takes him to some storage facilities and shows Aaron a second Abe leaving the building. The two set about working out how to exploit the technology and start generating money by day trading on the stock market. Despite Abe and Aaron having clear differences of opinion as to how the technology should be used, they work happily together until one day they see a friend in two places at once. Who told him about the technology? When did he use it? As this point all hell breaks lose.
In the final act, the well ordered business plan of the two engineers comes apart as they begin to plot against each other and spawn multiple machines, multiple timelines and multiples copies of themselves as they struggle to stop each other from manipulating the timeline for their own purposes. Quite how many timelines and copies of the engineers are in play at the time is a topic for debate. I have seen explanations list as few as three copies and as many as nine. In this last act, Carruth effectively turns the film from a low-budget sci-fi piece to a jigsaw thriller that makes the likes of The Usual Suspects seem crystal clear and easy to follow and concludes with a similarly fantastic image of a version of Aaron explaining in French how to make a room-sized time machine.
This film is undeniably a fantastic achievement. It is literally shot in some bloke’s garage but despite this it has more ideas than any mainstream sci-fi film of recent times. Primer is true sci-fi in the sense that it really is all about the ideas. The acting is also excellent considering the fact that the cast aren’t big name actors… or even actors at all in some cases.
Ultimately, how much you’ll like this film is dependent upon how much you enjoy jigsaw-style plotting. As with films like Donnie Darko and The Usual Suspects, you will walk away from Primer scratching your head and asking questions about what it is that actually happened. However, these types of films always leave me feeling uncomfortable. Carruth has remained steadfastly silent as to what the film’s actual timeline is and like Donnie Darko and The Blair Witch Project this leaves me wondering whether the film is actually internally coherent at all or whether Carruth has simply remained silent, leaving the audience to try and make sense of what is an inaccessible and incomplete plot.
Undeniably a triumph for low-budget filmmaking and for the frequently overlooked fact that science fiction is about ideas rather than explosions, Primer will enchant and challenge those who enjoy working out ‘what really happened’. However, those viewers who view film as a passive medium or who think that a plot that is difficult to follow is a sign of poor writing would do well to stay well clear.