Directed by Shane Curruth
2004, rated PG-13
The chronological sequence of a film is very important, both in respect to style and comprehension of the plot. Several films have been made that warp or completely discard the audience’s sense of time and order of events. Memento, in which the entire plot is played backward, and Magnolia, where events and characters are continually switching and overlapping, are two excellent examples of such films. When the chronology of films is played with like this, it is often left up to the audience to piece the puzzle together, pulling in all the loose strands to form the coherent, comprehensible whole. Primer, a small independent film which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, written and directed by Shane Curruth, is the newest, brilliant addition to these mystifying puzzle-films.
Two workaholic engineers, Abe (David Sullivan) and Aaron (Shane Carruth), spend their free time tinkering with patent-potential inventions in their garage, in the hopes of making a little extra money on the side. Their newest invention, however, proves to be more than it first appeared. Constructed from a myriad of random objects—stolen car mufflers, old refrigerator parts—this new machine appears to be able to diminish the weight of any object placed inside it. Repeated trouble with stability leads to continual frustration, until Abe notices something strange about the objects they place in the box. A common fungus, one that normally takes several years to accumulate, grows profusely on any object placed in their machine. Suddenly, the duo realizes what could be happening. Creating a larger box, large enough to fit a human inside, they test their theory, only to discover that they have created a machine capable of time travel.
This part may sound a little hokey at first, but this is not your typical, science-fiction time travel. This is no Back to the Future, Timeline, futuristic ideal. This is simple physics—well, simple if you happen to be an engineer—and is utterly mind-numbing in its genius. This time travel is only for small jumps, such as going back to the beginning of the day, or back a couple hours. The implication is that every hour spent in the box is an hour back in time. Abe and Aaron soon learn to use this to their advantage, playing the stock market easily with the pre-obtained knowledge of which stocks will yield the greatest returns at the end of the day. The two also brush aside and simply ignore the moral and physical paradoxes generated by such a creation. Eventually, however, the possibilities become too considerable for human nature to handle, and Abe and Aaron, along with the audience, are quickly sucked into a vicious downward spiral of confusion.
Since the two main characters of the film are engineers, it follows that much of the explanations are in mathematic and scientific jargon—and essentially gibberish to any layman. However, the moral implications still stand strong, and even if the specific words and phrases don’t make much sense, it’s still fairly easy to get the gist of what’s going on. Hearing the complicated explanations just makes you listen and think harder—a good sign for any film. The confusing part comes with the shifting of time, and therefore the shifting of events. Trying to wrap your mind around these impossible concepts, while listening to confusing dialogue, and attempting to organize events in sequence, easily creates chaos—the pleasing chaos of mystery and intrigue.
For a film created on only $7,000, Primer is remarkable. The grainy, washed colors typical of low-budget, independent films just makes the story seem all the more real. It’s hard to cram so many ethical paradoxes and engineering conundrums into one coherent plot, but Primer manages to fit it all in, and with enough twists and turns to thoroughly intrigue and captivate an audience. Not only that, but it does so in just 78 minutes. However, this is more than sufficient, as your brain is working as hard as it can for every one of those minutes just to try to keep up. So don’t worry if you’re utterly and completely confused at the end of this film—this is normal, you are supposed to feel this way, this is a good thing. The only cure is to see it again—and maybe by the 7th or 8th time it will actually make sense.