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REVIEW: Primer

Here’s what’s going to happen. I’m gonna cut right to the chase. No screwing around, no faffing about with an introduction. Primer is fantastic. It’s amazing. It is a stunning accomplishment, not only in science fiction storytelling, but also independent film. Primer is a movie that is Reservoir Dogs level quality made for less than ten thousand dollars. Seven thousand, to be precise, most of which went to film stock. This movie was definitely made on the cheap, not that you can tell from the expert shot composition and script-writing. It was a movie made by one guy, his best friend and their friends and family. This makes it not unlike Clerks in scale. Now imagine that instead of two sweary customer-service guys talking about porn and oral sex all day, it’s two engineers who accidentally invent time travel in a garage by screwing around with anti-gravity.

Cool stuff, huh?

Primer is perhaps the hardest science fiction film I’ve ever encountered on the sliding scale of sci-fi hardness. This film is best viewed with an understanding of various scientific trivia. For instance, gravity and time are actually linked. Higher elevation, time moves faster. Anti-gravity, anti-time. Perpetual motion and energy is an impossibility. So when, seventeen minutes in, Aaron kicks the batteries out from the machine and the machine keeps running, putting out more energy than it puts in (but eventually cycling down), you are appropriately astonished. Primer presents nothing that is a theoretical contradiction, achieving a diamond standard of plausibility as high as Moon. And in all of this, it tells the story of the effect of power on a friendship worthy of Citizen Kane.

All of this glowing praise aside, I must concede: Primer is not for everyone. It’s for people who watch movies over and over again, intensely analyzing every frame–or for people who can listen closely and let the details wash over them. When people tell you movies like Inception are confusing, I disagree. Inception has its own vocabulary of terms and unique rules of its universe which, once understood, make the film easy to follow. Primer is a damned confusing movie. It has its own unique rules and regulations for time travel which need to be understood to first understand the science fiction aspects of this movie. Other people have explained these rules for time travel elsewhere–if you want to know, look it up elsewhere. Or, watch the movie and pay attention.

Primer is the rare movie that rewards attentive viewing and deep focus on its dialogue and plot. Most movies pretend to be mysterious or intelligent by simply withholding information. Few movies actually are intelligent that go that route. Most smart movies feel smart because effort and thought went into the plot, like Moon or Inception. This movie is intelligent by not only populating its runtime with unashamedly smart people but being written by the kind of scientists who are dissatisfied with the fact that Transformers and Twilight are filed under sci-fi. It’s as though Shane Carruth, the writer/director/producer/editor/production designer/composer/sound designer/co-lead of this movie, is the incarnation of my brother Ben and me learning to compromise and work together to make a movie that’s both diamond-hard sci-fi and a great story.

Of course, all of this chatter about how well-written it is and how awesome it is in general is downplaying the rest of this movie. Filmmaking on a budget has left its mark on this film in a big way. It does not look like the ultra-polished and shiny version of sci-fi presented by Star Trek and Moon. This movie’s colour scheme is up, down and all over the place. Some scenes are blue, some are orange, some are green, some are red. All of them share the same gritty, home-made quality. Scenes shot at night are underlit and scenes shot indoors are tinted various hues. This works surprisingly well for an independent movie in this day and age of orange and teal samefests. There are no lens flares, there are no camera shakes. The colour scheme of the film is naturally determined by its settings and environments. It leads to a movie that feels so grounded in reality that its fantastic elements feel all the more real for it. Even when the camera vignettes the characters like something out of a silent film, subtly but surely, it feels more like a realistic cinematic emphasis than a close-up.

At this point, I feel it’s appropriate to defend Primer‘s dialogue. There are a number of films that followed some of the Dogme ’95 outlines in the first ten years of this millenium that have undermixed dialogue, loosely improvised and overlapping with everyone else’s lines. These are called “mumblecore” films and were thought to be the new generation of independent films. Primer is, in terms of sound design, nowhere near mumblecore. Dialogue overlaps, yes. Does anyone ever say the phrase “time travel”? No. But all of the individual lines have been re-dubbed in post-production, providing a level of clarity unheard in mumblecore. The dialogue is hard to separate if you’re just watching casually. But if you’re casually watching Primer–if you’re watching Primer with anything but the utmost concentration and are determined never to see it again–you’re watching it wrong. Primer wasn’t made casually. Mumblecore movies are slapdash affairs, thrown together by hacks “having fun”. Primer is fun the same way Brick is fun–where the director recognizes that nothing is as fun as watching a good movie.

But after all of this heaping praise and adoration, what of the story? Readers, no matter how many times I get to the ending of this movie, the final scene between Abe (David Sullivan) and Aaron (Shane Carruth) gives me chills. The final demonstration of just how deeply the power of time travel has divided these two men who were once best friends is riveting. Seeing these two men at each other’s throats, both with their previous lives permanently altered–it’s a scene whose power has only ever grown with repeated viewings of this movie. And it’s one that didn’t come about just from making a hard science fiction movie. It’s there because Primer is a damn good movie. FOUR STARS

Categories: Movies, Reviews
  1. April 6, 2011 at 9:36 pm

    I loved this movie. Afterwards, I was so enamored by it, I made a diagram of how time travel would paradoxically work less than ten minutes after I’d seen it, and then tried to show it to multiple people. They were quite confused.

    Past the point. On the basis of liking this movie, do you have any recs?

    • April 6, 2011 at 10:07 pm

      Go see Source Code, tomorrow night. It’s no Primer, but few things are. On home media–cos the films you’ll want are all there by now–there’s Moon.

      In terms of damn good time travel movies, the best one I can honestly recommend–solely as a time travel movie, not as a movie movie, though as a movie movie, it’s damn good–is Back to the Future: Part II, which sounds a bit like a pisstake until you realize the absolutely devastating number of paradoxes and time-based situations they get into and out of in that movie. Alternate futures based on alternate past realities and decisions, worlds folding and unfolding around you–it’s just a damn good movie about time travel. And funny, too.

      If you want a movie that’s as confusing as this and as good, there are two films I’ve never quite figured out, but I think I have a handle on both of them. The first is Primer, of course, with its dense, intricate science fiction narrative. The second is Brick, which is a movie that’s similar in scale and style to Primer, but wildly divergent in content, instead being a film noir story set in high school. The director of Brick and another fantastic movie The Brothers Bloom is actually working on a time travel movie as we type called Looper which is coming out next year. You should definitely check that out.

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