“What’s worse, thinking you’re being paranoid or knowing you should be?”
Ever wanted to watch a film which will make you feel three foot tall intellectually? Ever looked forward to watching the credits role by having only the faintest of ideas as to what just happened? If this sounds agreeable then the extremely low budget time travel brain twister Primer is the film for you. In many ways this is a vicious little film which makes absolutely no concessions to the viewer – exposition simply doesn’t happen. Everything from the science jargon dialogue through to the characterisation is kept as authentic as possible and this can make for an uncomfortable viewing experience. Those unwilling to be tested to the very limits of their perceptive abilities will no doubt walk away incredulous that anyone could find any enjoyment in such gibberish. Others will simply stare open mouthed as drool trails down their gormless slack jawed mouths. No, to watch Primer successfully you will have to turn your mobile off, staple your eyelids open, inject caffeine into your ball bag, and be ready to hit the rewind button every ten minutes.
The plot centres around a pair of middle income office nobodies in an engineering firm who share the same disillusionment with their dead end jobs and the never ending grind of suburban existence. Despite their obviously superior intellects the two friends are stuck in a rut, stifled by the passive aggressive world of office politics under an incompetent line manager. Instead of the conventional mid life crisis the guys decide to start an A-Team style garage project to build a machine capable of producing an anti gravity field. As you would.
Director Shane Carruth has stated his intention to accurately reflect the real life discoveries of some of the most ground breaking inventions in history. Instead of taking place as we might imagine in super futuristic labs using machines as big as a house, discoveries with the greatest impact are more often stumbled upon – a bi-product of experiments which had entirely different aims. And so the anti gravity machine only bloody turns out to be capable of time travel.
In the first hour or so Primer plays fair and it is only the science and engineering jargon used by the main characters which baffles. Then – like some kind of barbed brain whisk jammed right into your ear hole – it hits you. Suddenly doppelgangers are dropping out of the woodworks, the characters are double crossing each other left right and center without any previous indication they would do so. Before long multiple time travel paradoxes have be stacked up on top of each other, each one counter acting the other, until it all starts to scramble your puny brain. Primer works full time to add more and more layers of confusion through quick editing, vital dialogue being obscured as characters argue over the top of each other, and a less than helpful narrator. It’s a little comforting when the characters themselves begin to lose their own understanding of simple words as an effect of the time jumping.
While some of this bamboozling is artistically well executed, other parts appear more a consequence of the amateur set up and occasionally hinder your participation as a viewer. When debating a point of contention the science geeks do what science geeks do best – arrogantly talking over each other, refusing to acknowledge anyone else’s opinion. This unfairly makes an already complex stream of dialogue virtually impossible to get to grips with. As the time line twists and knots into a mental labyrinth each scene flies by with increasing pace giving your flagging brain box little time to catch up. It’s a little unfortunate that such an ambitious and confusing plot has been squeezed into just over an hour of run time – Primer surely would have benefited from an extra twenty minutes or so.
Despite the unpleasant feeling of having your neurons twisted into a million knots and your limited modern age attention span humiliatingly exposed, it is eventually rewarding to unravel the labyrinthine plot and begin to connect some of the more subtle twists.
If the time travel reduces you to a gibbering wreck there is also a a more conventional story hidden away resting on the relationship between the two principal friends. In keeping with the almost documentary style realism the relationship is an honest and well observed collapse of two every-man chums pulled apart as they reach for power and wealth. As any disillusioned lower income drone would probably do given the power of a time machine, the friends set straight to the task of making themselves rich, getting drunk and thinking up ways to bring retribution down on their boss. Not having established any long term goals or having thought through the ethical implications of fucking about with causality the time machine becomes the answer to every argument and soon the paradoxes build up.
Given the minuscule budget – just $15,000 – director Shane Carruth has worked wonders in building a such an intellectually challenging film simply from intricate writing. Being shot in what appears to be the American equivalent of Slough, and using amateur actors (Carruth takes the lead), the whole project has an unlikely do-it-yourself ethic especially when attempting something as complex as a time travel story.
To paraphrase another review: if you can fully understand the plot of Primer on the first viewing then you are either a clairvoyant or a liar. It is not a question of having advanced perceptive skills or even having a sound grasp of Physics at an academic level. The time travel paradoxes simply pile up too fast for anyone to fully comprehend without watching the film several times over, or seeking out an explanation on the internet. Perhaps with a few repeat viewings what is already a fascinating,original and trail blazing film will become even more enjoyable.