0370 | Primer

primer_05__largeI feel somewhat conflicted with regards to Primer, Shane Carruth’s low budget debut, which is probably best described as a film that puts the ‘science’ back into ‘science fiction’. On the one hand I feel I must add my voice to the many that have lauded Carruth for being able to make a film for as little as $7,000, with added props of course for getting it distributed, and I should also state how much I admire his multi-talented DIY approach: as well as being the writer, director and editor Carruth is also one of the two leads in Primer, while he even found time to compose and play the music on the soundtrack. It’s also interesting to see the earliest work of a filmmaker who completely refuses to compromise his material by dumbing-down in order to attract or appease a larger audience; several years later the resolutely anti-Hollywood Carruth followed this perplexing story about time travel with another (less confusing, though still oblique) sci-fi picture called Upstream Colour, which I liked very much even though I had to refer to Wikipedia’s plot summary several times while watching it.

On the other hand that’s the main reason that Primer is such a slog. It may only be 74 minutes long but Carruth’s insistence on making few (if any) concessions for people without a scientific or technical background seems a little too stubborn, even though those watching ten years after the film’s initial release, like me, can refer to handy diagrams like this while viewing. So what we have here is a situation where a filmmaker is doing something I wholeheartedly approve of making an uncompromising movie that is designed to make its watching audience think but has perhaps taken too much of a hardline stance, to the point where personally I haven’t enjoyed it at all. Time travel is a sticky, tricky concept to get your head around, and it’s certainly refreshing to see a filmmaker attempt to get to grips with the ideas surrounding it in such a thorough fashion, when most steer well clear of the numerous questions that are inevitably thrown up. Carruth’s background in mathematics and engineering ensures a degree of authenticity with regard to the dialogue and the plot (in a nutshell: two engineers stumble across a (the?) recipe for time travel while conducting experiments in a garage and a lock-up unit, which makes a change from watching mop-headed middle class teenagers do the same), and there’s no doubt that the story has been meticulously planned, but I couldn’t follow it at all, and even the explanations I’ve subsequently read have left me scratching my head in vain. Carruth’s interest in surface textures is evident here though it is more prominent in his second work and there’s some interesting editing to bring life to what is, essentially, a series of scenes featuring two guys (played by Carruth and David Sullivan) saying very complicated things. I like the story of the film’s production more than I like the film itself.

Directed by: Shane Carruth.
Written by: Shane Carruth.
Starring: Shane Carruth, David Sullivan.
Cinematography: Troy Dick.
Editing: Shane Carruth.
Music: Shane Carruth.
Certificate: 12A.
Running Time: 77 minutes.
Year: 2004.

Comments 9

  1. Mark Walker October 1, 2015

    Gotta agree wholeheartedly here, man! I’d heard so many people praise this highly but when I went into it, I found it a bit of a drag. The ideas Carruth has are great and it’s an interesting premise but it doesn’t hold your attention. Still good but not as good as I was led to believe.

    • Stu October 1, 2015

      I’d had this recommended to me by a few people when I watched (and enjoyed) Upstream Colour, but I can’t understand how anyone could follow it, which is surely key to enjoying the damn thing. I just couldn’t figure out what was going on, particularly near the end. Interesting filmmaker but I’ve now realised I should have been more interested in what he does next as opposed to what he has done before!

  2. Todd Benefiel October 2, 2015

    Now we switch: I liked this one, and you didn’t! And earlier this week I put in my Netflix queue to watch again! I’m a fan of time travel films, so maybe that’s why this one entertained and held my attention more so than it did for you. And I liked the technical side of it…although I thought it was kinda dumb to have one of the guys turn into a mutant fly at the end.

    Just found ‘Upstream Color’ on Netflix, and since I’ve never seen it (or heard of it until now), and since you and Mark seem to like it, I’ll add it to my queue.

    • Stu October 2, 2015

      I like time travel films too Todd, but normally I find them to be much more fun than this. I think I’m happy for them to fudge the science or the explanation as to how it is happening as long as they entertain me, and I just found this one a little frustrating.
      I’d be interested to hear what you make of Upstream Color. It’s a strange film but it really sucked me in.

  3. Tom October 3, 2015

    Wow, a great reminder for me to kick it into high gear and get to watching ‘Upstream Color,’ I cannot believe I still haven’t seen that (when I made a promise to myself to check it out after watching Primer a couple years ago).

    I remember liking Primer for its success in conjuring up a believable form of time travel and on such a low budget, but you’re right. The issue is that it’s perhaps a slightly too highbrow film. It’s pretty pretentious. Even for me. Lol

    • Stu October 5, 2015

      I lost patience with it, and although I felt similarly lost during Upstream Colour (well, certainly the first 20 mins or so) it didn’t bother me anywhere near as much. I’d really recommend it, particularly if you liked Primer.

  4. Three Rows Back October 4, 2015

    I personally loved it. It’s a film that rewards a second viewing and a third. It gets a little impenetrable towards the end but then that just intrigued me more. Loved the review and respect your opinion.

    • Stu October 5, 2015

      Thanks mate. It’s good to get a range of opinions on this one; I’m surprised at how many people like it! I have to be honest and say I won’t be doing a second viewing. Well…maybe one day. Who knows?!!

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