Review: Primer (Carruth, 2004)

Still from the movie Primer

We’d had Primer on hold at the San Francisco Public Library for almost a year before it finally came in last weekend. Then, late on a Saturday night, we proceeded to watch the 77-minute movie nearly three times, with pauses to look at each other quizzically and say, “Wait, what just happened?” and for me to draw diagrams that only ended up confusing me further. At 3:30 am I finally fell asleep, only to dream all night about time travel.

So what does happen in this movie? It begins with the rather familiar trope of four young engineers operating a startup out of a garage (but in Dallas, not Silicon Valley). By accident, two of them, Abe (David Sullivan) and Aaron (played by filmmaker Shane Carruth himself) invent a time machine, which they end up using for all the mundane and practical purposes (e.g. gaming the stock market or gambling on sporting events) that many other time travel movies sidestep with some offhand ethical rule. But then, of course, something bad happens, and, having a time machine, it’s just too tempting not to, well, try to prevent it. As you can imagine, havoc ensues. But, worry not, this is no repeat of The Butterfly Effect. The rules are different here–with interesting results.

Primer is perhaps the most intellectually satisfying time travel movie I’ve seen to date. As far as I can tell, there are no logic holes and, most gratifyingly, no predestination paradox. Not surprising for a man who takes nine years between films and has a finger in almost every aspect of the filmmaking process, Shane Carruth has created a meticulously plotted, complex, and sometimes purposely bewildering narrative. As in his later Upstream Color, he is perfectly comfortable with immersing his viewers in the puzzle of his plot, making them work for every scrap of comprehension. Which means you likely won’t understand what happened the first time through. Or the second. Or perhaps the third. Maybe you’ll only start to get an idea after doing an online search and coming upon this website, and even then you may only be able to say, “Well, that could be it, only, hmm, my brain . . . hurts, and I can’t keep my eyes open anymore.”

Then, when you’re finally satisfied that you’ve got a good enough grasp on what happened, you start to sit back and wonder, well, what was the point of all that? If I have to work this hard, shouldn’t the reward be a little more meaningful? In that sense, figuring out Primer is similar to unraveling a complicated mystery, pinpointing the whodunnit, only to discover you can’t convict the guy because he’s gone or dead or already behind bars. Watching the director’s commentary in the hopes of gaining some clues about the plot (of which there were only a few), we listened to Carruth discuss how he created the characters Aaron and Abe–two men with, as Carruth put it, a rather ordinary friendship. Aaron and Abe are not intended to be so different from one another. They could have almost been exchangeable, and yet the presence of this opportunity creates a profound schism between the two. Carruth puts them in this unusual situation in order to explore the nature and strength of trust under the pressure of such extraordinary temptation. (I’m paraphrasing liberally here). Sounds pretty grand and worthwhile, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, the ratio of meaning to complexity is less than satisfying. It’s as if Carruth’s brain is on hyperdrive, a little too fascinated with the perfection of his form.

But I’m quibbling. Watching Primer is an immensely engaging, immersive, and original experience. We wouldn’t have done it three times otherwise. Now we’ll just have to wait until 2022 for Carruth’s next film.

Note: Doesn’t Shane Carruth look like a skinnier, more serious Jason Bateman?