Primer

It's a movie, Jim, but not as we know it.... muses Tara P. Nevertheless, this low budget sci-fi flick impresses.

By Tara P Woolnough

It would not be exactly true to say that Primer is unlike anything you’ve seen before, as unless you’ve managed to get by in this world without ever having seen a movie (in which case, it seems miraculous that you’ve discovered the internet already – well done!), it is undeniably quite like something you’ve seen before: it uses pictures and sounds to tell a story. But for the sake of melodramatic overstatement, let’s just say that that’s where the similarity ends. Self-taught filmmaker Shane Carruth truly has something to boast about, especially when you consider the claim that he managed to make this for the expense of ‘less than a used car’ (ie, under four grand), as he has realised a film which is unconventional and visually exciting, with an aesthetic style which perfectly compliments the content – it was shot on Super 16mm, and has a very over-exposed look about it.

The ‘plot’ (I’m fairly confident there is one, but rather less sure that it is communicated in any fully comprehensive way) centres around biblically named Abe and Aaron (is this merely incidental?), two engineers in their late twenties who accidentally discover something revolutionary while tinkering with a project in Aaron’s garage. What ensues is sci-fi in the best possible sense; free from showy special effects of any kind, Primer exhibits a refreshing kind of realism that lends a seldom-achieved credibility to the events portrayed.

It is not immediately clear what this pair of inventors have discovered, but gradually it emerges that they have a time machine on their hands. This raises all sorts of philosophical as well as practical questions for them, and by repeatedly travelling six hours into the past, the two begin to investigate possible applications, like investing in shares that are known to make high returns by the end of the day’s trading. However, the situation begins to deteriorate as both the main characters, along with the audience, seem to struggle to make sense of exactly what the hell is going on. Doubles, double crossings, and doubling back in time will make you want to do a double-take, and I am led to suspect that Primer certainly deserves to be watched more than once.

Unusually, the viewer is not privileged with a ‘God’s eye view’, but rather is subject to certain limitations, for example, the fact that not all of the dialogue is audible, due to characters speaking over one another – and what is audible is not always understandable because of the frequent use of technical jargon that many people will be unfamiliar with. The effect is intriguing and strangely voyeuristic, giving the sensation of actually spying on someone. Bafflingly, even though it was nigh on impossible for me to make sense of the plot, I found myself liking it very much indeed. Unlike films that I haven’t fully understood which have left me resentful either that I feel too stupid to understand them, or that the director is too stupid to make the story communicable, Primer left me with a sense of wonder coupled with pleasant bewilderment. This is the kind of film likely to polarise its audience between ardent fans and dissatisfied critics, depending on your sensibilities.

Whatever your reaction, Primer bears a mark of authenticity which surely must stem from the fact that Carruth actually worked as an engineer, before quitting the profession to pursue a more creative career in film. Remarkably, as well as directing, editing, and writing this film, he also plays one of the leading roles (Aaron), so it will be particularly interesting to see what this talented fellow dishes up next. Certainly one to watch.
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