It is every filmmaker’s hope and intention to have their work seen by as many people as possible, regardless of the reaction, although a positive one is always preferred. The more people that see the film, the greater the chance that it will find an audience and develop a fan base, which in turn will help the filmmaker’s career grow. Tragically, with so much competition out there, and people’s general instinct to “take the blue pill,” many quality films often fall by the wayside. There is no clear concept as to what makes a film successful or brings in an audience; sometimes its the characters, sometimes it’s the story, but usually it’s the names involved. Sometimes they just get overlooked, as was the case with Primer (2004), directed by first timer, Shane Carruth. Even with a theatrical release, television and DVD distribution, and the Grand Jury Award from the Sundance Film Festival, Primer has only managed to gain a modest cult following since it’s premiere seven years ago. Filmed on a budget of only $7,000 with a crew of only five, not including Carruth, who did the brunt of the work, Primer is a film that proves you don’t need a huge budget to tell a quality story.
In all honesty Primer is not the easiest film to watch in a mind-numbing entertainment sense. It asks a lot of its audience while delivering an intellectual banquet of thought provoking concepts. Not only from the technically heavy dialogue spouted by the principal characters, but the overall plot, themes, and execution really rattles ones brain. It is reminiscent of Memento (2000) in its non-linear, subjective plot structure where you are locked into the experience of the main character(s). The audience only knows what they know, and experiences what they experience, the rest is total speculation without mainstream exposition.
The story follows a pair of engineers, Aaron and Abe (Shane Carruth and David Sullivan) who, while working out of Aaron’s garage, inadvertently create a time machine. They discover that the machine only works one way, sending matter back in time to the point when the machine was started. At first they simply use the device to research investments in the stock market, but as the plot develops so does the motivation for the characters. Ultimately they wind up creating a paradox, which leads to them double-crossing each other and using the machine behind one another’s back. In the end the initial conflict is resolved, but the strain of both the multiple trips back in time and the secrets that go along with it all take a toll on their friendship. Aaron and Abe become walking paradoxes, as there are now more than one of each of them existing in the same time.
The approach Carruth takes on the time travel element is quite unique and more or less practical. Primer certainly has more merit than the highly flawed, yet fun as hell, Back to the Future (1985-1990) or Bill and Ted (1989-1991) series and has a more grounded basis than The Butterfly Effect (2004) or 12 Monkeys (1995). As an organic anomaly, shrouded in mystery, how the element of time travel works is never fully explained. Because it is not the intent of their pursuit, it is a side effect of another experiment entirely, they have no foundation for understanding. Through experimentation and their search for an understanding Aaron and Abe are led down a moral crossroad. It is only through the causality of their experimentation that their characters are clearly defined.
From a technical standpoint the quality of the film is as good, if not better than anything Hollywood had churned out up to and beyond that point. Carruth does a masterful job of executing his project. As the writer, director, producer, actor, composer, and editor of the film, his work presents him as an extremely competent filmmaker. The cinematography, sound editing, and simple production design all seem to enhance the brilliant, albeit complex, story that Carruth is telling. The thing that really sets Primer apart from every other time travel movie is that it does not rely on heavy special effects to distract the audience from holes in the plot. In fact, the only special effect, that isn't done with the editing, doesn't even involve the time travel element.
The film, as a low-budget independent debut, overshadows the career equivalents of other contemporary filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, and Spike Lee, to name a few. In terms of cost effectiveness the numbers alone show a level of dedication and competence seldom seen even in the short film arena. At no point does the film convey to the viewer that they are watching an amateur film.
This article is not meant to give the impression that Primer will be a standalone venture for Shane Carruth, because that is not the case. After seven years, Carruth is finally getting his next film project underway. There are reports on the internet that the script is complete and pre-production is moving forward. A Topiary is going to be another sci-fi drama, no doubt building on the stylistic tones Carruth established with Primer.