Movie Review: Primer (2004)

This film, created by Shane Carruth, has a reputation in the science fiction world for being one of the most complex and interesting movies about time travel in the entire genre. I’d wager that no other movie has had more “explainer” material written about it. Indeed, if you want to untangle all the loops and loops within loops, you pretty much do need a cheat sheet of some sort.

But those analyses have come to dominate all the reviews so much that people seem to have forgotten they’ve been watching a movie, and one should spend at least a little time going over its cinematic aspects.

Primer is the first of (to date) two films by Carruth, an indie (obviously) filmmaker from Texas. One usually wants to “be kind” with new works from aspiring artists and give them a large benefit of the doubt, but one also doesn’t want to be unfair to potential viewers.

So, with that in mind…..


Abe and Aaron are two friends who, with the help of two other friends & co-workers (who can be ignored, since they have no real bearing on the plot), run a little tech firm out of Aaron’s garage. The team has come up with a few innovative and patentable ideas, but are still looking for the Big Thing. One of them mentions some research being done at a nearby university, and thinks he’s got a cheaper shortcut to achieve the same goal.

They scavenge parts and supplies to put together a McGuffin Box. Apparently, it’s supposed to be some sort of anti-gravity field – but it turns out to be a form of time machine. Not one of those “Enter a time and date, and travel there” devices so common in science fiction, but a box that contains a field where time flows in the opposite direction. Set a timer to turn it on in the morning when you’re not there. In the afternoon, turn the box off and get inside before it completely powers down. You will come out in the morning at the time when it was turned on!

Now, given that you’ve got that sort of time machine, what do you do with it? Do some day trading on stock market or play the lottery to earn money to fund further R&D, obviously. But what about altering the timeline? Can you arrange to be in two places at the same “time”, or set yourself up to be the hero when a fight breaks out at a party? It’s those ethical questions that are worthy of just as much discussion as the loops within loops in the movie’s basic story.

The plot and script are quite strong. Carruth deliberately avoided simplifying things; it’s not the technical details of Abe and Aaron’s discovery that he was interested in. Rather, as he stated, it’s supposed to be about the breakdown of their friendship over the course of the one week where they experiment with their invention.

Unfortunately, that’s where it fails. You don’t get much sense of difference between the two main characters. They even dress alike – white “office” shirts, black pants, and ties. Really, that’s all they ever seem to wear. I suppose that for wardrobe purposes, and the intricacies of the time loops, it was best that they wear simple outfits that should not noticeably change over the course of the movie. But couldn’t one of them wear a light blue or pale yellow shirt? It doesn’t help that their names are rarely used. Sure, they have no reason to call each other by their names – but what about the other people? A “Hi, Abe!” or “Hello, Aaron, nice to see you again” would have helped a lot.

Yes, the most important part of the story takes place over one calendar week, so it could be argued that not enough time has passed for Abe and Aaron to have had a real falling out. But the lack of differentiation between them, coupled with their never seeming to have any serious arguments over their time traveling, makes their final split at the movie’s end come across as unsatisfying. They don’t seem to have learned anything from the experience – either in a “No one should be doing this; it’s too risky” or a “We need to go much bigger to make this really work” way.

I can’t really call the movie a failure, though. It’s very well made, and goes over the practical aspects of a time machine in a way that no one else seems to have done. But if you need a “guide” to tell you what’s going on – and those guides miss the real story – well…..

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