I 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.
Running Time: 77 minutes.