Saturday, November 11, 2017
21st Century Essentials: Primer (2004)
Director: Shane Carruth
Starring: Shane Carruth, David Sullivan
Country: United States
Shane Carruth’s time travel drama Primer is one of the least accessible movies I’ve ever watched, but it's also one of the most fascinating. In both content and production it's a DIY affair, with a plot that centers on two guys doing science in a garage, made on a shoestring budget (reportedly just $7,000) with Carruth doing just about everything himself (he's the writer/director/co-star, but he's also credited as producer, editor, production designer, and as part of the sound department and for the musical score). In an era when the market is flooded with content because anyone with an iPhone and a computer can make a movie and can probably sell it, too, thanks to the number of platforms in search of content to fill out their libraries, Primer is an example of a film that makes a case for this democratization of filmmaking by demonstrating that a lack of resources isn't the same as a lack of talent, imagination, or ability. Primer is a great movie. I’m still not sure I can entirely wrap my mind around the mechanics of the its science, but I’m in awe of Carruth’s ambition as well as the artistry necessary to make a story this dry and opaque so incredible engaging.
To put it as simply as possible, Primer is about two men – Abe (David Sullivan) and Aaron (Carruth) – who invent a means of traveling several hours back in time and find their relationship tested by the implications of what they’re doing and their different ideas about how the technology should be used. At first they use their discovery to travel back in time and trade in the stock market, using their knowledge of the near future to earn small, regular windfalls and trying to limit the amount of causal influence they have on the rest of the world. Of the two Abe is more cautious and much more concerned about the implications of messing with time, while Aaron becomes increasingly driven by the power he now has to manipulate things, musing about how he can do bad things and then go back and stop himself from doing those things so that he can have the satisfaction of having done them but not have to suffer the consequences of it. Increasingly at odds, the two men find themselves trying to outmaneuver each other in order to get the upper hand and control of their invention.
Primer is a daunting film not only because it’s so dense in terms of its science, but because it doesn’t do anything to ease you into its story. The characters speak in a lot of scientific jargon and without much in the way of exposition, as Abe and Aaron speak to each other as two people who understand what they’re dealing with and, therefore, don’t need to explain it to each other. Moreover, the deeper you get into the film, the more difficult it becomes to understand because the act of time travel makes the narrative increasingly convoluted, involving alternate timelines and confrontations between doubles and originals and the two characters plotting against each other. While many films, particularly studio films, tend to over-explain themselves, Primer's strategy is to obscure things in order to push the audience closer to Aaron and Abe's experience as time travel makes things increasingly confused and difficult to keep track of. That makes the film a challenge to watch, but Carruth's handle on the material, and his ability to incorporate all of this scientific information into the narrative in a way that pushes the story forward instead of stopping it dead with exposition, makes it a fascinating challenge.
Carruth obviously put a lot of work into conceiving the mechanics of the story's time travel, but the primary reason why the film works despite being hard to follow is that it's ultimately less about the fantastical science fiction elements (not that Primer is "fantastical" in the usual sense, as it aims for a very down to earth aesthetic that is very stripped down and utilitarian) than it is about the relationship between Abe and Aaron. The focus of the story isn't so much on time travel itself, but on how the discovery of time travel affects the two men and their friendship and how the exercise of this newfound power brings out different shades of their personalities that will bring them into conflict with each other. It's because Carruth is able to tell the story at that very human level that it's able to engage you and draw you in and it's because he's a filmmaker who understands the medium and how to use it to communicate in a visual way that Primer pierces the imagination despite how impenetrable it might seem.
Primer is not the sort of film that everyone will like. It's cold and distant and experimental and takes no pains to make anything easy on the audience. But it's also one of those endlessly rewarding movies that demands (and earns) multiple viewings which, while they might not ever lay things bare, can make things just a little bit clearer. Carruth is an incredibly skilled storyteller and jack-of-all-trades filmmaker whose second feature, 2013's Upstream Color (which is also great), is a bit more accessible but still demanding of the viewer's attention in order to follow and understand it. He isn't prolific, but that's perhaps because he's so hands on with every aspect of making his films. As a result Primer has a very "homemade" feel, by which I don't mean that it looks cheap or second rate, but that it feels like an intensely personal piece of work, something that you can truly describe as a labor of love. I have no doubt that Primer is exactly the film that Carruth set out to make and it's one that stands up as one of the best hard science fiction movies of the last two decades.