Friday, November 23, 2012

Movie – Primer (2004)

There was quite a bit of hype about the movie Primer after it won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2004.  I can’t remember exactly when I saw it, but it was within a year or two of this.  With the hype still fresh in my mind (most of it about how this was a fresh and original time travel movie), I ended up being a little let down by the film.  That was mostly because my expectations were too high, though.  It is still a decent movie and one that is good enough to recommend to anyone who wants to see a serious movie on the ethics of time travel.

I mentioned that I did not find the film to be that original.  That is in relation to its concepts, which had been presented in print many times.  I was a voracious reader of science fiction in my teens and twenties.  Because of this I have yet to see any science fiction film show me something new and unique.  This means that even though Primer does not present something completely new, it still presents some new concepts to those people who only watch sci-fi films.

The other thing that has been written about quite a bit in relation to Primer is the complexity of its plot.  One professional reviewer even said that anyone who claims to understand this movie in one viewing is a liar.  I’m afraid I don’t agree with this critic (since I did understand it and I’m not lying about that), but I will say that if ever there was a film where the viewer truly has to pay attention (no talking, no texting, no surfing the web, etc.) to understand it all, it’s this movie.

I will admit that because of my aforementioned reading of tons of science fiction I might have been better prepared than that professional critic to accept and follow what was going on in the plot with the multiple timelines.  For those who did have trouble keeping track, here is a graphic that lays it all out.  Be aware that this graphic will obviously contain spoilers for everything in the film, so I would recommend only referring to it after you have seen the movie.  I do disagree with one of the points in the graphic, but it is not one that is essential to understanding the plot.

So what is the plot?  Aaron (Shane Carruth), Abe (David Sullivan), Robert (Casey Gooden), and Phillip (Anand Upadhyaya) are four men working on some pet science projects in Aaron’s garage.  Aaron and Abe disagree with the other two on what they should be working on and go off on their own.  They invent a device to reduce the weight of an object via superconductors.  Like many scientific discoveries, the really important step forward is discovered by accident: it turns out their device appears to change time.  In other words, once properly built to contain a human, they would be able to travel back in time.

Abe and Aaron completely cut Robert and Phillip out of any of this.  Abe secretly builds a prototype and tests it on himself.  He takes Aaron to a storage facility and startles Aaron by showing him other versions of themselves walking out of the facility.  It turns out Abe will take Aaron back in time with him in this device and that their respective timelines will overlap.  It was the quickest way Abe could think of to convince Aaron to take the chance on trying the device on himself.

Having failed their first ethics test by cutting out their other two partners, Abe and Aaron proceed to fail more ethics tests by using the machine to go back in time a few hours, then a few days, to play the stock market.  All of a sudden their financier (Chip Carruth) appears in their machine.  They have no idea how he came to be there, or how he found out about their machine.  The important thing is that he has apparently been damaged somehow by his trip back in time.

Abe decides that this shows that time travel is too dangerous.  Without telling Aaron he decides to go back in time to stop his earlier self from ever time traveling in the first place.  How he does this is a nice reveal in the film and I won’t spoil it.  Aaron is apparently even more ethically challenged than Abe, though, because he is not on board with Abe’s decision and he takes steps to stop Abe.  The results are that the two of them become opposed to each other in trying to alter their respective timelines.  Adding to the complexity is that they are encountering different versions of themselves and each other while they are trying to outdo each other.

Shane Carruth did just about everything on this film.  He was the writer, director, producer, editor, composer, sound designer, production designer, and casting director.  Unfortunately, he has done little since this film.  David Sullivan, on the other hand, has continued to act right up to the present (i.e. the recent Ben Affleck film Argo).

Because Shane Carruth did much of the work himself, as well as use friends and relatives for many of the other jobs, the budget for this film was a miniscule $7,000, most of which was spent on film stock.  To keep costs down Carruth did extensive storyboarding before ever shooting any scenes.  He has said that he shot a total of 80 minutes of film, 78 minutes of which ended up in the finished movie.  Primer has been praised for not looking like a low budget film, though.

If you like movies that make you think, and that present you with moral and ethical questions, then this is the film for you.  Unlike many science fiction movies that are only sci-fi, this is a true SF film that shows the potential of what the genre can bring in regards to making us look at ourselves through a different lens.  People aren’t the altruistic beings or the evil world conquerors shown in many sci-fi movies; they are complex people, who when placed in an extraordinary situation will not be totally good or totally evil.

Again, if you don’t like to actually pay attention to a movie, then this film is not for you.  On the other hand, if these concepts sound interesting, then I recommend you give this film a try.

Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars



  1. This sounds like a movie I'd really like -- I'll add it to my watchlist. I know what you mean though ... once you've read/watched a lot of sci-fi, there's really nothing new under the sun in terms of ideas about time travel, parallel universes and such.

    1. If you remember, please come back and let me know what you thought of the film.

  2. I love this film because of how serious it takes its complexities, there's nothing flashy about it. I also love that it is so synonymous with quality hard science fiction and specifically time travel that almost everything since Primer has been compared to it. Not bad for a film that cost $7k.

    Now having said all of that, I'll quantify it by saying I've seen it several times and several of the things you've mentioned in this review I have no recollection of. I guess this means I'm not best placed to form that judgement! Happily it means I shall surely be watching it again soon.

    1. "Now having said all of that, I'll quantify it by saying I've seen it several times and several of the things you've mentioned in this review I have no recollection of."

      It's been at least five years since I saw this film, so it's entirely possible that my memory of it is the faulty one, not yours. If you do watch it again and notice some mistakes I made in this review, please let me know.