PRIMER is the ultimate challenging film. It requires the viewer to deeply focus and observe something that is difficult to digest. I cannot say I completely understand everything that happens in this movie. I have ideas and theories that undoubtedly contain some truth and some gaping holes. If one were so inclined, they could dedicate their life to piecing the puzzle together. After searching some message boards, it appears some people have already done this.
The film surrounds two engineers who appear to be in their late twenties/early thirties. They are dressed at all times in slacks and a striped tie, though the ties have different colored stripes. So much for individuality. They’re the kinds of low level employees that send out envelopes containing their work to big companies that never write back. The men are building a machine in their garage but they’re not entirely sure what it does. After all, the microwave was invented by accident. It begins to secrete protein at a rate that suggests either a miracle or that perhaps time is measured differently inside the box.
The men speak as engineers do. They theorize out-loud, scribble notes on a legal pad and discuss their discoveries in a technical jargon that we’re not intended to understand. After all, we are observing minds powerful enough to discover time travel. How could we expect to understand it? In BACK TO THE FUTURE, Marty McFly asks Doc Brown how time travel works. Doc points to a Y-shaped formation of Christmas tree lights called the Flux Capacitor and Marty accepts this and moves on. There are no convenient explanations in this film. We are asked to observe the events as they unfold and these geniuses are not going to dumb down their conversations to spell it out for dummies like me.
The men discover that they can turn on the machines, then immediately go to a hotel room where they will unplug the phone and TV, eliminating any issues of causality. 6 hours later, they can go climb into the machines where they will wait for another 6 hours to travel back in time to earlier that morning when they turned the machines on without worrying that they will run into themselves since they will be in the hotel room. If that’s confusing to you, trust me, I explained it a lot easier than the film does and it doesn’t get any less complicated from there. The men eventually do what we would all do if we made this discovery: play the stock market and bet on basketball games.
Things get foggier. During one trip through the box, the men emerge bleeding from the hands and ears. Did the box make them bleed? Or are they not the original versions of themselves? Time travel can’t ever hope to go smoothly given the endless variables to calculate. The film hurdles forward at a frenzied pace and given the techno-jargon, you’ll be lucky to keep up. PRIMER is a fascinating puzzle that will drive some viewers crazy and completely engage others. Consider me the latter.
Shane Carruth wrote, directed, edited, composed the score and stars as one of the two men. He made the film for an astonishing $7,000 and the film later went on to win the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004. Carruth, a former engineer with a mathematics degree, has yet to make a second film and perhaps he only had one in him. What he created was a fascinating mind-bender that will have geeks like myself pouring over it for years to come.
PRIMER can be found on DVD and is currently in rotation on IFC.