Review: Primer, 2004, dir. Shane Carruth

How accurate is the science involved in Shane Carruth’s 2004 no-budget home brewed science fiction morality tale, Primer? I must respond to that question with another question: does it damn well matter? I have many pet peeves, it’s true, but if I have one that I truly can’t abide by or overlook it’s the pompous postulating of unnecessary queries regarding the legitimacy and reality of the science that pushes forward the basic conceits of sci-fi literature and media as a means of determining quality. Don’t get me wrong, I see nothing wrong in tickling that most essential medulla by dissecting the substance of the central idea of a sci-fi story, but little is more frustrating to me than when one concludes that the narrative of such a story is poor because the science is a bunch of nonsense, gobbledygook, claptrap, or flimflam.

Frequently, that’s sort of the point. Great science fiction historically offers a piece of scientific fraudulence and uses it to frame an examination of important contemporary social issues. There’s absolutely no way that District 9‘s canister, for example, has any groundings in real-world science, but we don’t really care because whether or not it’s conceivable that spraying a man with black mystery goo could put him through a waking Kafka dream is sort of besides the point. And while this is true of Primer, too, one could make the case that the level of scientific accuracy at its core matters ever so slightly more than it does for the film’s of Carruth’s peers by virtue of the film’s sheen of verisimilitude.

Not to scare off any (such as myself) whose brains aren’t science-oriented, but Primer firmly announces its proclivities as a film very shortly after the ominous opening. It’s talky, and most importantly the bulk of its discourse wraps around matters of high scientific density. Perhaps complicating things for some audience members, the picture’s dialogue flows rapid, nigh unceasingly, almost mercurial after the manner of Sorkin, and that fleetness, combined with the film’s demanding subject matter, can be taxing for those disinclined toward scientific pursuits. In a way, Primer almost feels like a sci-fi movie made by science geeks, for science geeks; those with a solid grasp on the principles and theories and ideas bandied about by the film’s characters might get more out of it than, say, someone who studied English for four years in college with a side focus in Communications*. (Not that I’m speaking of anyone in particular, here.)

But that’s not to say that the picture is wholly inaccessible in the absence of that base understanding. In fact, Primer doesn’t require audiences to comprehend the fine details of the back-and-forth of its leads whatsoever; you may not understand why palladium is important to Abe (David Sullivan) and Aaron (Carruth), but you understand what happens once they obtain it and put it to use in the experiment they’re conducting in the latter’s garage. And you understand what the discovery both men make together means for them, and where they come into conflict over how best to apply it. For a movie as high-minded and intellectually vested as Primer, Carruth manages to make it remarkably easy for audiences to boil the picture down to the essentials and focus on what’s necessary.

Primer first and foremost is about the true spirit of scientific invention and how breakthroughs in science and technology often occur by accident after innumerable hours are spent testing new scenarios constantly. The aforementioned Abe and Aaron (along with two friends), we learn, work for a major corporation by day but run a side business in their free time which enables them to fund pet projects in the hopes of garnering the venture capital attention that they crave; when one of their experiments appears to yield the possibility of time travel, they cut their other cohorts out of the loop and begin using the machine for personal gain by playing the stock market. But as they grow more bold in their employment of the machine, a rift forms between the two of them as to whether the applications they put the device to are morally sound at all.

At which point Primer fulfills genre expectations by examining the ethics and impact of the science at the movie’s center. Abe and Aaron could both have secured places for themselves in the annals of history by bringing their revelation into the public eye, a reward far more valuable than success with venture capital– after all, figuring out how to travel through time would be nothing short of the most important scientific discovery made to date. Yet all Abe and Aaron think to do with their device revolves around wanton personal gain, exploiting it selfishly rather than implement “the box” for the betterment of others. Both leads lack that spark of curiosity which we so often associate with science; as a result, Primer feels pessimistic, suggesting an avarice at the heart of research and invention rather than a desire to expand humanity’s minimal understanding of the universe and our own world, and Carruth paints a grim portrait of his scientist protagonists based off of that over-arching theme and the film’s moody and dark visual scheme.

Primer is at its trickiest when engaging in Carruth’s storytelling chicanery; narrative is doled out in a non-linear manner, and between the film’s precise and sneaky editing and its inherent, staggering braininess, it can be a difficult picture to navigate. But patient and attentive viewers will find themselves rewarded for their observance– if Primer is a difficult movie to digest (and most may require more than one viewing to survey the entire circumference of Primer), the challenge is made up for by the film’s restrained, simmering energy and its gratifyingly original and refreshing philosophical bent and attitudes.

*Unofficially. I never declared that minor. I really hate paperwork.

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5 thoughts on “Review: Primer, 2004, dir. Shane Carruth

  1. First let me say: Bravo for that opening paragraph. I hate that, too. I pretty much shut off my listening capabilities whenever I heard someone start on a tirade about how “such and such couldn’t really happen because blah blah blah”. It’s like: who cares? It’s a freaking movie for crying out loud. It doesn’t have to abide by laws of science. IT’S A MOVIE!!! Did we completely forget about the concept of suspension of disbelief?

    That being said, I really need to go back and watch this one again. I couldn’t really get into the one time I did try to watch it. Of course that was because I was multi-tasking and thus not giving the movie my 100% undivided attention. And honestly, a movie like this deserves…nay NEEDS that level of attention. So I really gotta go back and try it again. It seemed good when I first watched it, just being distracted at the time didn’t allow me to really get into it and follow it.

    • I can abide complaints when a movie breaks its own internal logic, but devices like the box or the canister of black goo in District 9 are the MacGuffins of their respective movies; they’re there to drive the plot and don’t really warrant much explanation, though Primer tries quite hard to make the box palatable and so I could maybe see criticism being aimed at that element since the film seems to play more on the “realism” angle. That said, I still think doing so misses the point of the film.

      I hope you do check Primer out again; it’s a really demanding movie, maybe one of the top five most demanding movies of its decade, but really worth giving your full attention to. You can’t fully digest it if you view it any other way.

    • Thanks Fitz! Hope you manage to get your hands on Primer soon; such a great movie. I’m really curious to hear more about his next movie, A Topiary, and look forward to seeing it in theaters once it’s ready and released.

  2. solid review here of a difficult film. i’m glad you didn’t get stuck on the science of it all as most people seem to. i thoroughly enjoyed this movie despite the general reaction of “what the….?” each time i watch it.

    for a night of thorough confusion i recommend watching this and timecrimes back to back.

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