Primer: a hit-and-miss film about causality, consequences and a road of good intentions leading to hell

Shane Carruth, “Primer” (2004)

A low-budget film (it cost about US$7,000 to make) about four enterpreneurial engineer / scientist friends and work colleagues working on an invention and stumbling across the secret of time travel, “Primer” isn’t an easy ride as a story but it is an interesting look at how real-life inventors in the early 21st century might go about creating, working on and protectting an innovation that’s far ahead of its time and whose potential might not be realised until decades later when the appropriate social-cultural-economic-technological setting is in place. Up to a certain point, the film is more about two friends, Aaron (Carruth himself) and Abe (David Sullivan), and how their discovery of time travel strains their friendship and their relationships with other people, especially Phillip (Anand Upadhaya) and Robert (Casey Gooden) the other entrepreneurs, and affects their thinking and actions as they use time travel to engineer or re-engineer events to suit themselves but discover there are physical side-effects and ethical consequences to deal with that their training as technicians hasn’t prepared them for. Although Aaron is the obvious ring-leader and appears in nearly all scenes, the film follows Abe’s point of view.

The plot is fairly straightforward at least until Aaron and Abe start messing with time and go backwards and forwards in time, figuring out what their doubles might be doing in parallel time-streams, and at one point Aaron meeting his double and fighting him. The last 30 minutes in particular can be very confusing and viewers should see the film at least twice and maybe a few more times to make head or tail of it all. The point that Carruth may be making is that trying to control fate and how it might pan out carries significant repercussions not just for yourself and others immediately around you but for time and space themselves. Aaron and Abe play the stockmarket but by the end of the film the guys look as though they haven’t made any profit at all and are instead contemplating leaving the US and each other, with Aaron going to France and assuming a different identity.

The main attractions of the film revolve around its reworking of the “mad scientist” stereotype: the mad men here are ordinary and likeable worker-bee employees of some nameless IT or scientific corporation who do a bit of PC-tinkering on the side for bored teenage hackers in their garage and who stumble onto a major invention they’re not too sure about and want to work on to fully understand it. As the truth dawns on them, they start using time travel to get what they want and rework events to suit them. They constantly react to things happening around them, they suffer strange physical ailments like bleeding ears and shaky hand control that forces them to write like small children and their solution to problems that occur from their time-travelling tinkering is to … do more time-travelling tinkering! A clear example of not being able to think “outside the box” because they’re just too caught up in their invention and are fearful of bringing others into their secret so they suffer from restricted groupthink. Eventually Abe tries to go all the way back in time to near the beginning of their project to fix things … only to discover Aaron’s done the same!

As might be expected of what is basically a labour-of-love home movie by someone with no experience of making films or education in telling a clear story, the acting is so wooden it could sprout leaves and the sets are basically what the crew could find in their home town and get permission from the owners to use. Carruth wrote, directed, scored the music, produced and played one of the leads in the film and he and several other actors drafted in family and friends to help out with filming and food and drink supplies. Scenes are set up and filmed very well with no jerkiness and the sequencing of scenes is easy to follow though the plot is not. Several critical passages in the film in which scenes appear to be edited choppily show a flair for using editing to suggest particular effects or make a point. The film sometimes has a fly-on-the-wall documentary-style appearance which enhances its freshness as a variation on traditional “mad scientist / sorcerer’s apprentice” sci-fi films.

Carruth certainly has some talent as a director and while “Primer” could have done with a tighter script and a clearer direction in plot and how it develops – it’s quite possible the actors improvised their dialogue and allowed the dialogue to more or less influence the direction of the story – the film does raise some very significant questions about the process of creating and developing an invention and how that invention and its potential might skew people’s better reasoning and ethics and lead them down a road paved with good intentions to hell.


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