[Revised slightly for clarity, new observations] Shane Carruth’s Primer (IMDB, see also Primer Ventures–thanks Rachael!) is the most exciting, difficult, and puzzling time travel film I think I’ve ever seen. I feel like I’ll need to see the film again tomorrow night, and that’s about the highest compliment I can give any film. I can’t be sure that I entirely understand all of the film’s narrative turns, and to be honest, I’m struggling to find a way to wrap my head around the film’s take on the nature of time, identity, and scientific inquiry. It’s the kind of film that will provoke endless conversations and repeated viewings, with many critics comparing it to films such as Memento, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Mulholland Drive, a category to which Primer certainly belongs. Reading back over this review, it’s very clear that I’m still grappling with this film, so please bear with this review–it’s all over the place.
I’m not sure where to start, so I’ll begin by noting that the story of the film’s production is itself pretty amazing. Primer was made on a $7,000 budget and filmed in Super 16. Carruth, a sofware engineer-turned filmmaker wrote, directed, and starred in the film, and he also composed the film’s score. Members of the cast also served on the crew. Carruth’s parents provided craft services. The film itself is a testament to the DIY ethos associated with independent cinema. Stylistically, the film powerfully conveys a bland corporate culture, with washed out colors and sparse, modern buildings. I’ll have to see the film again before I can talk fully about the cinematography and mise-en-scene, but many of the film’s shots were beautifully composed, regardless of the film’s budget.
The film opens with a group of researchers who are working nights in a garage on a device that is only vaguely described, but the four men, all wearing what one reviewer called “white collar drag” (whie dress shirts, striped ties) assemble this technology out of spare parts such as a catalytic converter and copper coil (note: one reviewer on this forum notes that the garage is a refernce to HP, the ties, of course recall IBM). The four guys are trying to find someone to invest in their idea so that they no longer have to work for a large company and so they can profit from their own labor. The house, a typical middle-class home in a Dallas suburb, recalls other films that deal with white-collar alienation. As I was watching I was reminded of Neil LaBute’s In the Company of Men, in part due to the white collar culture, but also due to the relationship between Aaron and Abe (a point that I’ll try to explain later). One of the men, Abe, discovers that time passes at a different pace inside the box, that they have assembled a time machine. Then he shows Aaron (played by Carruth) that he built a larger version of the time machine inside a U-Haul storage space [some spoilers may follow].
The two of them eventually face all of the ethical questions that time travel offers: given the incredible power associated with time travel, what would you do? Naturally, they go back and collect lottery winnings, but as one of them points out, that’s only $200,000 a year for the rest of our lives, not the kind of payoff you’d want for inventing a time machine, so they discuss other ways in which they could exploit their invention (“we could publish it,” one suggests), hoping to capitalize on the power it offers. The two men go back in time often, creating some confusion about what is happening, as causality and agency itself become confused, with at least three Aarons and two Abes existing simultaneously at one point, though “Aaron 2” speculates in the audiotape that there could be “at least twenty” Aarons out there trying to repeat the party scene that serves as the film’s narrative crux.
Eventually, one of the film’s chief concerns becomes clear. Aaron wishes at one point that he could beat up his boss without any consequences. His wife jokingly teases him saying, “my husband, the hero.” And at this point it becomes clear that Aaron wishes to “reverse-engineer” the moment at the party in which he can be the hero, repeatedly returning back to this same moment again and again until he can “get it right.” In my experience, this is one of the most effective treatments of this desire I’ve ever seen in a time travel film (and I’ve seen a lot of time travel films), in part because it’s one of the few time-travel films to directly criticize this impulse (La Jetee might be the other example). These questions of power begin to complicate the relationship between Aaron and Abe, with the two of them becoming increasingly paranoid as their travels in time begin to take their toll, physically, emotionally, and mentally. It’s this competition between the two men that reminded me so much of LaBute’s film, with the power available through time travel leading to the demise of their relationship, a reading that Carruth himself emphasizes in this interview and in this Village Voice interview.
I’m still wrapping my head around this film, but I can say it’s one film that really “gets” time travel. I’ll be thinking about this film for a long time.