Sunday, April 21, 2013


Primer is a perfect example of how the making of a film can influence my perception of what the film itself really is. And I struggle with this notion. It’s an argument of Respect vs. Skill. As in, if I respect the hell out of how a movie was made, should my affection for the film itself be more substantial? On one end, I think a film is a film, and should be judged as such. No outside influences (including the impressive struggles it took to get a film made) should alter how I feel about what is on the screen. But, other times, I find the backstory simply too remarkable to ignore.

To make sense of all this, I did not like Shane Carruth’s Primer the first time I saw it. The film tells the story and how four coworkers collectively research and develop inventions when not working as corporate engineers. Soon into the film, Abe (David Sullivan) discovers that he may have accidentally created a small time travel device, in which he can send himself back in time. He tells his friend, Aaron (Carruth), and the two branch off and start working on the project by themselves.
From there, the film’s narrative structure becomes more or less unhinged. I’m not going to attempt to make sense of it here, but Abe and Aaron’s time-traveled doubles appear (and disappear, and reappear), the stock market is toyed with, relationships are fractured, possible moments of violence are altered, and so on. When I finished my first viewing (which was roughly a year ago), I was left with a notion of indifference. I valued the effort of everyone involved, but was lost amongst the confusion. But then it wouldn’t go away. So I watched it again. Liked it more. Watched it again. And now I’ve spent the past week or so reading as much about it as I can, becoming more impressed with each passing article.

I’ve been reading about how Carruth wrote, directed, produced, shot, edited, scored, distributed and starred in Primer using $7,000 of his own money. I’ve discovered how Carruth taught himself physics to make sense of the script, how he abandoned the project three times out of frustration while in post-production. And how the film made it to Sundance, was picked up by a production company, profited 60 times its budget, and has since attained cult status. This, you see, fascinates me to no end.
Primer’s cultural influence has been impressively vast given its modest execution. Dedicated fans have spent hours dissecting the film’s many layers and complex timeline. Blogs have been devoted to the film’s narrative, “definitive” timelines have been published, then edited, then republished – hell, even the film’s plot description on its Wikipedia page gives me a headache (but seriously, props to whoever the hell wrote that).

Time travel movies rarely work for me. I think the very idea of time travel itself presents too many plot holes and contradictions to keep up with. One of the main reasons I never got fully into Rian Johnson’s Looper (which, incidentally, Carruth was a technical advisor on) was because the characters skirted the complexity of time travel by verbally saying they weren’t going to talk about. That’s too easy to me, but hell, what do I know?
My point is, Primer doesn’t skirt. It talks in words I don’t understand, expands on areas of physics I will never be able to comprehend, and confidently understands time travel, even if its audience does not. Confidence. That’s exactly what Primer has. Its characters are reserved, intelligent, and never arrogant about what they know (and, just as importantly, don’t know). Carruth has said he purposefully neglected the use of expository dialogue to explain things, and had no interest in clarifying the film’s time travel accuracy. That’s a ballsy move. And, in my opinion, the risk paid off.

Sure, my reasons for appreciating Primer extend far beyond the actual film itself. I respect Shane Carruth and the great, control-freaked lengths he went to ensure that Primer was seen. And make no mistake, this most certainly is a film that deserves to be seen. Probably more than once. A-


  1. I'm not equating Primer with this at all, but I agree that sometimes the story surrounding a movie is at least partially responsible for the level in which it is held, and the best example I can think of for this is Citizen Kane.

    Don't get me wrong; I consider Kane to be a five star movie. I think what lifts it even higher in some people's minds is the sheer fact that the very powerful man who was the model for Kane did everything in his power and that his money could buy in order to try to destroy not just this film but the man who made it. He ultimately failed, which leaves an "underdog triumph" story to add to Kane's legacy.

    I liked Primer when I saw it, but I didn't love it. Yes, I was able to follow the plot (I used to read a lot of science fiction, so time travel mechanics were very familiar to me.) Ultimately the movie is purely about the plot and nothing else. That's what earns my respect.

    1. Hey Chip, thanks for leaving such an insightful comment. I love what you said about Kane's legacy, and I couldn't agree more with you - that definitely helps lift the movie.

      That's amazing that you could follow Primer. You certainly have a more evolved mind than me. Ha.

  2. I'm glad you're able to retrieve this film as I do plan to re-watch it soon so I can write a new review with some text that I wrote about my meeting with Shane Carruth at the 2004 Atlanta Film Festival.

    1. Again, so cool that you got to meet him (and really cool that he was such a nice guy). Thanks for coming back and recommenting!

  3. Again, terrific review man. I've been watching a lot of older films for my ballot posts, but I'm going to try to watch this soon.

    1. Thanks! I really do recommend this one. By no means easy, but very impressive.

  4. Your top 10 favorite time-travel films?

    1. 10. Midnight in Paris
      9. Frequency
      8. Peggy Sue Got Married
      7. Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure
      6. Time Crimes
      5. Groundhog Day
      4. La Jetee
      3. Terminator 1/2
      2. Back to the Future Part 1/Part 2
      1. Primer