If anything dates faster in movies than pop-culture references, it's technology. The more grandiose a scientific gizmo appears, the likelier it is to look goofy in retrospect, like the banks of Christmas-tree lights that pass for advanced computers in '50s rocket operas. By contrast, the device in Shane Carruth's Primer looks like a packing crate. Some guys build it in a garage. They stash it in one of those storage facilities ubiquitous to every suburb.
It's the mundane concreteness of these detailsthe roll-top garage doors, the anonymous industrial exteriors, the gadget's burdensome clunkinessthat makes Primer's mind-boggling theoretical premises creepily convincing. (This is where you should stop reading if you're seeing the movie.) A low-key, deliberately puzzling sci-fi headscratcher shot for a reported $7,000 by a Dallas software engineer-turned-filmmaker, Primer uses its low budget as a toola means of grounding abstract ideas in the here and now, even as the narrative rockets off the rails.
Start with the basics: two engineers, Aaron (Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan), are building an invention with co-workers in their spare time. What sort of invention? Carruth leaves it vague; it involves blocking gravity to reduce an object's mass. The device works, then it works too well. It creates a side effect that obliterates the original intent. As one buddy watches, dumbstruck, his partner's double emerges from the facility housing the device: the machine can send things and people back in time. The entrepreneurial implications are obvious. The ethical ones come too late.
That's as clear a summary as I can give, even after three viewings. Carruth never has anyone in the movie explain anything to help us along. The telling is complex, but the reason is simple; in real life the characters wouldn't have to spell out the plot to each other. Indeed, the movie's first half consists largely of collegiate guys in white shirts and ties talking in the short-cut jargon techies use to cut corners. Even when the talk might as well be in unsubtitled Urdu, the actors' curt, untutored believability keeps it interesting. Factor in Carruth's unobtrusive fly-on-the-table camera placement and sharp editing, and the scenes thrum with the thrill and threat of discovery.
Only gradually, through close observation of Aaron and Abe at work, does Carruth set up the thriller aspect of his story. Fiddle enough with time, and time fiddles with you: having essentially TiVo'd their lives, the gaunt, sleep-deprived heroes can't even trust that they're in their own skins, let alone trust each other. At this point Carruth the editor introduces jump cuts and storytelling hiccups that leave us as bewildered as the inventors, while Carruth the director and cameraman sets up eerie shots through cracked doors and slit garage windowsshots that create frames within frames, just as the device doubles and redoubles time.
I can understand the frustration people feel at Primer's fragmented cards-on-its-chest style, and the first time through I sometimes shared it. Carruth's elliptical method muddles a girlfriend-in-peril subplot that's as close as the movie gets to a conventional action storyline. A straighter narrative would've nailed the suspense and clarified all the characters' relationships in the bargain. I'd complain more if the movie weren't so alive and engaging in its minute detail, and if it didn't offer such pleasure in its chilly foreboding and logic-puzzle games. Perhaps it's unfair to withhold so much that only repeat viewings come clearthe same (rootless) criticisms leveled at Memento and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. But this is plainly one movie meant to stand up to time.
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That clip is horrifying. It looks like postmortem makeup. Very uncanny valley.
AGGGHHHH that last picture!