Primer, directed by Shane Carruth, is a brilliant indie Hollywood science-fiction movie dating to 2004 that leaves you thinking. It is a story about two friends Aaron and Abe and how they unintentionally invent a time travel apparatus. This movie is different from other science-fiction movies and pushes the boundaries, albeit in a different manner. While the movie isn’t recent, one hopes that this review is still relevant for science-lovers who haven’t seen it.
The reason most science-fiction movies have such a great impact is because of their very fantasy-oriented storylines (Blade Runner, the Star Wars series and Inception for example), stunning visuals (2001: A Space Odyssey and Jurassic Park, for example) or both. But what essentially makes these movies work is that these films alienate themselves from the technicalities and drudgeries of science, them dealing with science only superficially. Primer operates on a completely opposite end of this scale as it doesn’t have stunning visuals or a very fantasy-oriented storyline hitting much new ground. It documents the life of two boring scientists and some extraordinary events in a very ordinary manner; yet it works brilliantly as a science-fiction movie.
Primer is extremely complex, not because it tries to be so, but rather because it doesn’t try at all. Every science-fiction movie has some kind of narrative, dialogue or other cinematic technique which makes the viewer familiar with the scientific (fictional or otherwise) concept which drives the movie. Imagine how hard it would have been to understand Inception if Dom wouldn’t have explained how dreams work, or how hard it would have been to sit through Donnie Darko if they hadn’t released the director’s cut with the liner notes and extra scenes explaining time travel and the parallel universe. It would have indeed made those movies unbearable to watch and impossible to understand and discuss. Carruth doesn’t do us the same favour which Nolan and his likes did. Instead, he leaves no stone unturned to make sure the movie is as inscrutable as possible and fortunately for him, he succeeds to make this trick work in his favour.
Primer takes the concept of time travel, which has been a part of the popular imagination since the seminal novel ‘The Time Machine’ by H.G. Wells, and deals with it in a unique manner. But the movie never explains the concept or for that matter anything which the lay viewer can digest. You are left with your own wits to catch up.
The story begins with Aaron and Abe getting involved in building a machine that can reduce the weight of an object. They realise later that the machine they’ve devised has the ability to fast-forward time. They devise a machine big enough to allow a human to travel and call it ‘the box’. What ensues after is a conflict of ideologies, ethics and actions between the two main characters who then try to deal with the burden of their own creation, for the characters subsequently fail to cope with the enormous power they’ve been granted, and while one tries to reverse the experiment and abstain from the ‘box’, the other becomes power-hungry to exploit it.
The most striking feature of this movie is the screenplay. The dialogues are organic, spontaneous and extremely technical. There is no pretence or effort to dumb down dialogues to make them sound simpler. This movie is replete with scientific jargon as most of the dialogues take place between two scientists Aaron and Abe. The characters are also well-written and portrayed. Aaron (portrayed by Carruth himself) and Abe (David Sullivan) are both scientists who have extremely tiresome jobs and want to break out of it. They are portrayed as normal scientists, normal human beings whom you come across on a day-to-day basis.
Primer moves at a very high pace, constantly throwing puzzles and paradoxes at the viewer and never solving them. The viewer is continuously challenged to keep up with the movie. Carruth has brilliantly captured the idea of scientific discovery. Aaron and Abe’s accidental invention of a time travel machine portrays subtly and beautifully how most ground-breaking inventions and discoveries were accidental. Their coming to terms with the abilities and consequences of the use of the machine is also beautifully captured and portrayed.
The film has its fair share of loopholes and unsolved paradoxes, but you can’t be sure it is unintentional. This movie is around 74 minutes long, but be assured that you shall be spending far more time thinking about it and trying to solve the mysteries of the movie (you may even need to draw diagrams and view it a few more times to grasp it). The movie has an admirable confidence that it can be understood by its audiences; maybe, that is why it has acquired a cult status.
Another thing that makes Primer a distinguishable film is that Shane Carruth, its writer, director, editor and one of the lead actors, is a former engineer with no cinema background, and he made this movie on a shoe-string budget of $7,000. Production-wise, this movie never looks cheap, but it might be devoid of the bright and silvered visuals that we are all so very used to seeing in time travel and/or sci-fi movies, giving it a bit of a lacklustre look. However, the movie makes up for that in many other ways. The sound track (also composed by Carruth) is sparse and haunting, and often ear-bustling, which adds brilliantly to the eerie feel of the entire film. It also does justice to the premise of the garage where the majority of the film takes place.
This movie is for hardcore science-lovers, for the people who like to think, people who can appreciate intelligent cinema. You won’t find anything in this movie that one expects from a typical science-fiction movie. Primer does what it does amazingly. It draws you in, doesn’t spoon-feed you, leaves you thinking and wanting more. Watch this movie and you shall be discussing this movie and recommending it to everyone you meet who you think shares your passion for both science and intelligent cinema. And this is what exactly what I want to do, recommend it to you if you fall in the category I mentioned.
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