Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 23 May 2005
Source New Line DVD
In some anonymous suburb, four kempt white-collared twenty-somethings spend their evenings in a garage engineering each other’s experiments. They spend probably a month on each person’s idea, and if the experiment is moderately successful, they package, market, and distribute it, and move on to another’s entrepreneurial scheme. This enterprise may do well to circumvent an unimaginative day job, but it has yet to pay off.
Two of its members, Aaron and Abe (besides different hair colors, virtual clones of one another), excise the other two and begin work on another experiment. It involves digital timers, car batteries, and magnets, but the construct remains essentially mystified, even to each other. After a few weeks of experimentation, Aaron invites Abe to his garage, gleaming with an uncharacteristic eagerness. He demonstrates his find: he starts up the machine, removes both batteries that power it, but it remains on. “So what the hell is this thing?” he asks, seconding the viewer’s notion that this creation is completely arbitrary, and yet potentially revolutionary in some aspect. Later, after Abe has made great progress with the machine, he approaches Aaron, deeming their creation “the most important thing that any living organism has ever witnessed.”
The film is decidedly opaque in how it explains the offshoot success of Aaron and Abe’s experiment and its eventual repercussions. Late in the film, after both have subjected themselves to their own experiment, the pair finds their handwriting has deteriorated. They recognize letters, and they can still read, but the practice of handwriting – the many years they have spent conditioning their hand to almost involuntarily produce letters – has become lost, almost immediately.
There are many aspects in how Primer evolves that I am purposefully omitting. It’s equivalent to a Hemingway short story, with an air of science fiction and without any offshoot camp; describing it is the risk of ruining the riddle the viewer is invited to solve. I would prematurely claim it as one of the best science fiction films I have seen, and certainly as one of the genre’s best in recent years.
In encouraging interest in this film, my nondescript synopsis may be inadequate, but I am compelled to relay my own response to this wonderful film, having watched it three times in the past week. It’s become somewhat custom to watch this film multiply and assemble its puzzle; my desire to do so was heightened after listening to director Shane Carruth’s commentary and perusing through its fans’ (often conflicting) interpretations on the film’s message board.
Conceptually, Primer evokes similarly minimalist science-fiction efforts such as La Jetée and Pi, but it also channels super-independent films becoming of the past decade: most notably, In the Company of Men, with which it shares a diminutive production budget and anonymous corporate setting. There are flaws in many of its aspects – the acting is at times stilted, and the sound production is lacking (Carruth admits most of the dialogue was overdubbed) – but Primer remains an exceptional idea, one that transcends the capability of its making. This is of no real fault, but rather a back-handed commendation for Carruth who determined virtually every facet of Primer’s production as its writer, director, lead actor, score composer, editor, and, in one brief sequence, special effects designer. (It would not be ironic if he personally delivers each print to be exhibited at arthouse theaters.) Primer is essentially my favorite sort of film, one driven exclusively by its concept, and enhanced, rather than hindered, by the imposition of its meager finances.