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‘Primer’ Revolutionizes Cinematic Time Travel

by Jeremy Mathews
 
 
 

“Primer”
ThinkFilms
Written, directed and produced by Shane Carruth
Starring Shane Carruth, David Sullivan, Casey Gooden, Anand Upadhyaya, Carrie Crawford, Ashley Warren and Samantha Thomson
Rated PG-13

(out of four)

“Primer” doubles and triples back on itself, folding and reversing its story in a manner that makes it impossible to fully comprehend the film in one viewing. While most time travel films ignore whatever paradoxes the screenwriters don’t want to consider, writer/director Shane Carruth dives into them. The result trusts that the audience will follow the emotions of a dizzying arc of a friendship and discovery under pressure and not let the overwhelmingly intricate details ruin things.

These details don’t sink the film, but create a work that can span countless screenings and future spins on the DVD player, placing it with other obsessed-over sleeper hits like “Pi” (which has its own math and science fetishes), “Memento” and “Mulholland Drive.” “Primer” should join the ranks as more and more fans try to decipher all its secrets. Two screenings are enough to understand the basics, but more secrets surely lurk in each frame of film.

Carruth has redefined science fiction with a seemingly bland, modern-day setting and a restrained visual style. Shot on Super 16-mm film with an almost nonexistent budget, the events are filmed matter-of-factly, yet lyrically. This is not the barrage of special effects and Western-esque plots, but an intimate portrait of scientists at work, complete with their seclusion and their banter, which seems to actually involve scientific thought instead of simply big words. While the time travel the two main characters discover in this movie is just about as unlikely as that of any movie, the ideas behind them are based on science. In this way, it’s reminiscent of the futuristic geek books that explained ways in which their worlds might exist, but the core of the film is separates itself in the world it choses to portray.

Working in standard suburban houses, four scientists operate a side business out of their garage, rotating whose project they work on each month in the hopes of hitting on something that gets them out of their day jobs. Aaron (Shane Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan), however, aren’t overly impressed with their partners’ current concept and begin to work covertly on a “box” that expedites the growing of mold on a weeble. A watch proves an even more interesting test, and Aaron and Abe begin to suspect that they might have hit on something important.

So they decide to build a larger box and try it on themselves, although their adventures initially consist of hiding out in a hotel room and finding out how the stock market is doing while the other versions of themselves go about their business.

To try to summarize the whole plot would be pointless since it would take too long and I don’t claim to completely grasp it yet. Besides, I wouldn’t want to take the fun out of gradually discovering what the hell is going on after several viewings. At Sundance, Carruth said that the first viewing is intended only to lay the groundwork and communicate the emotional core of the story. But despite and because of its complexity, it is entirely successful in bizarre distortion of reality and science fiction.

All of the plot elements begin askew and slowly spin out of control, as Carruth experiments with the medium. He casts aside standard scene structure, denying the expected beginnings or ends. Visually, he uses harsh lighting, slightly overexposed film and subtly disorienting sound to bring more depth to the haunting imagery created from seemingly banal urban sprawl.

Carruth never relents as he follows through on each question that the box poses. How does the sleep deprivation of a 36-hour day affect one’s psychosis? What are the dangers of having multiple versions of yourself simultaneously existing, even if you plan ahead for it?

A longtime friendship, secure and unexciting jobs and the well-being of Abe and Aaron’s family and friends might be at risk. But humankind’s thirst for knowledge and experimentation rarely subsides to foresight and caution.

jeremy@red-mag.com

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