This review is going to be as much about the fundamental rules of storytelling as it is a traditional critique of Primer. So, if you aren’t interested in a metatextual examination of the limits of cinematic storytelling, you should skip this review. Also, it is beyond impossible to discuss the labyrinthine nature of this time-travel puzzle’s plot without engaging in what some would claim are spoilers and for that I apologize. Primer is the type of film that every fan of high-concept cinema should force themselves to watch. And though I didn’t walk away from this movie with the sort of rapturous adulation that its most ardent supporters bestow upon it, I understand that has as much to do with my structural beliefs regarding the nature of cinema as it does the quality of the movie itself. Taken on its own terms, Primer is a scientific jigsaw puzzle of the highest order; as an entertaining or enlightening viewing experience, it leaves a little more to be desired.
I’ve written four screenplays (haven’t sold any yet; haven’t really tried to yet either though); but I know that I will never in my entire life write a film that reaches the masterful complexity of Primer. I was always a shitty strategist in chess, and I’m just not that capable of thinking that far ahead. Most pieces of fiction are lucky if they include one well-placed Chekhov’s Gun (check the hyperlink if you are unfamiliar with the literary device). Primer is composed almost entirely of subtle and easily-missed foreshadowing. There is so little “fat” in this film that beyond the budget requirements of the film (the movie was made for around $7,000 with most of the money being spent on film stock), the movie’s 77 minute running time could be as much a commentary on reducing storytelling to its essentials as it is an act of frugality.
However, what qualifies as the bare essentials of Primer could fill up the essentials of around a dozen other films. Calling Primer dense would be like calling the Pacific Ocean damp. I proposed this to an engineer friend of mine and he concurred with my sentiment so I feel comfortable stating it here. Primer is like porn for engineers and practical scientists. Though the basic concept of time-travel used is silly and technobabble to some extent, the scientific and mathematic language used in the film is rooted in actuality. And, thus, if like me you don’t have a Master’s in one of the physical sciences, engineering, or math, Primer can be an impossible cliff to climb. Thankfully, my best friend (a, for lack of a better word, genius and modern renaissance man) was present while we watched the film and he helped to keep me up to speed about what the characters were talking about. Primer exceeds even The Wire in its expectation that an audience will be able to follow its plot without any artificial exposition.
And therein lies the rub of the film. On the one hand, I praise Primer as an intellectual brain-teaser of the highest order. It is so smart and detailed and expertly complex that it is without question that I will watch this film at least half a dozen more times in the next year or two trying to suss out its secrets. It’s the type of movie that I’ll have to watch with explanatory charts open so that I can keep of the various timelines and iterations of the plot. But, and this is incredibly important, once you solve the puzzle of the film, I worry that Primer has little else to speak for it (besides an exceptional use of a tiny budget). Multiple viewings will help me understand the byzantine structure of the film’s narrative. But will it ever make me care about its characters? Will I ever find an actual emotional arc worth investing in? Based on my viewing of the film and a subsequent obsessive consumption of synopses of the film’s plot, I think not.
It is a testament to the outlandish, almost Lynchean complexity of the film (more on why I prefer a Lynch-style puzzle later) that I haven’t even actually touched on the plot of the film yet, the idea that I needed that sort of preface to any sort of analysis of this film. Four friends run a small-scale lab out of the garage of Aaron (Shane Carruth) as a way to make money on the side apart from their boring day jobs as engineers. But a schism over the direction of their entrepreneurial activities causes a schism in the group, and without informing the others, Aaron and Abe (David Sullivan) begin work on their own invention, a room-temperature super-conductor. But, without realizing it, the pair have also invented a machine whose contents are shuttled back and forth through time roughly 1300 times. And that’s not the complicated part of the film.
After realizing the potential of their machine (which goes beyond their original hope to create a cheap, more efficient energy source), Aaron and Abe decide to create a larger version of their machine, which they now call the box, which would be able to fit a person inside of it. And, thus they invent man-made time travel, but with serious limitations. The box can only send someone back to the time that the machine is turned on so in order to travel six hours in time, you have to turn the machine on, wait six hours, and then, you must wait six hours in the box to go backwards in time. They use this extra six hours of causal influence on the universe to try and influence minor events like the stock market and sports betting, but when their careful attempts to cause as little change as possible proves more than they can handle, the plot of Primer spirals outward to near insanity as multiple iterations of the same timeline show the continued change Abe and Aaron’s interference is wrecking on the time stream.
If that sounds complex, that’s the dumbed down version of the plot. If you’ve seen the film, you’re probably familiar with graphs like this which attempt to explain the looping/spiraling plot of the film. Based on what I’ve read of these charts, Shane Carruth’s plotting is masterful to an insane, Chinatown-esque degree. In fact, I imagine Robert Towne would have to bow down to the attention to continuity and detail that Shane Carruth displayed in literally every second of Primer. And, if Primer is meant as a commentary on what would have to be the inherently insane details of time travel and messing with causality, then the film is an unqualified success. The viewer is as lost in the woods as the heroes of the piece. But I still fret that the puzzle is all Primer has to offer.
Once you’ve conquered the puzzle of Primer (and if you’ve done that without the help of graphs and charts and internet forums, congratulations; you’re a genius), is there anything left to comeback to? Great storytelling rewards repeat viewings even after you’ve “mastered” the film. There is nothing left in Annie Hall for me to notice, but the emotional power of the film grows with each viewing as I mature and come to appreciate the adult romance of it or Manhattan. Clearly, getting in lost in the seemingly countless little details that Carruth has hidden throughout the film is a pleasure in its own right. But that’s pure plotting. Great storytelling is a combination of great characters and great plotting. I feel fairly safe in saying that Primer leans entirely to the latter side of that equation. For when you find all the details, I worry the film leaves you with no new resonances.
I’m going to cut this review short because I watched two films with my best friend last night. We watched this and (500) Days of Summer, and I need to review both. Though I am coming off as especially critical of the lack of an actual substantive core of the film, I hope that isn’t read as a critique of the value of Primer. Shane Carruth accomplished exactly what he wanted to. He made a mad, brain-stretching puzzle that will be confounding new and old audiences for decades to come. My desire for more character and for more emotional context to the actions of the heroes is a comment on what I want in a film, not necessarily what makes a film good. As long as you have an IQ of around 120 or so, you owe it to yourself to watch Primer. If you’re anything like me, you’ll lose sleep trying to unravel its secrets.
Final Score: B+