Shane Carruth’s first feature Primer, a mind-bendingly complex time travel drama, which he wrote, directed, produced, edited, scored and also starred in as one of the two principal roles, won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2004. But while time-travel movies usually have the protagonists pitching up somewhere – and sometime – more thrilling or more glamorous than where they started, in Primer, they stay right where they are, in a suburban wasteland of strip malls and storage units, hushed conversations, ambiguities and loose ends.
Aaron (Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) are tie-clad engineers by day and hobbyist project types by night, trying to develop a big idea they can sell to a venture capitalist. One of these is a refrigeration system that does strange things inside a metal box, appearing to change the mass of an object. Then a watch left inside the box starts to run backwards. Yes, they have invented a time machine. Almost any other movie would mark this moment with deathless dialogue, and perhaps some lightning flashes. Here, they appear stunned, nervous and perturbed. Soon they are making well-organised six-hour forays into the future, taking care to avoid their doubles, and making a killing on the stock market. They remain in denial about the reality of their discovery, as if they don’t want to admit it to each other, leading to the best gag of the movie: ‘Are you hungry?’ to which the reply is ‘I haven’t eaten since later this afternoon.’
Soon a mix of greed, paranoia and fear starts to disrupt the sequence of events, and the narrative begins to fracture. Doubles of Abe and Aaron start piling up. The storyline veers into a strange subplot involving someone pulling a gun on a girl at a party, which the duo revisit again and again, changing the timeline each time. Unfortunately, by this point (or was it before that?) Abe and Aaron have stopped trusting each other, and each of them try to change things back to the idyllic, pre time-travel state – which by this stage is the one thing the audience is sure is not going to work.
At some point in this sensibly brief movie, you are going to have trouble understanding exactly what is going on. Some people make it past the hour, some people get confused after 45 minutes. The timelines become so fractured and tortuous that even with the help of a (possibly unreliable) narrator you are left scratching your head – the linear medium of film struggles to hold the ideas presented. Some people have unpicked it all for you here, but even on my second viewing I found it difficult to follow. One of the greatest strengths of Primer is that it assumes the audience’s intelligence and willingness to watch it again, to puzzle it over, even as it deliberately distances you with complexity – it is a genuinely 21st-century movie, aware it will be rewound and scrubbed through for answers. This doesn’t mean that a one-sitting experience isn’t worthwhile. The rapid fire techno-patter is completely free of ‘As you know, Bob…’ countersinking. It trusts you to work it out.
Primer was reportedly produced for just $7000, shot in borrowed spaces and mostly starring the director’s family and friends – although the pacing, shots and sound design punch way above the budget’s weight. Many of the choices made – the dreary locations, the flat lighting, the complete lack of special effects – are part of this constraint, but the filters and high-temperature 16mm stock work beautifully to give the film an otherworldly, Instagrammy glow. The sound design in Primer complements the visual aesthetics; minimal, disorienting and ambiguous. It ignores the tropes of Hollywood sc-fi sound design where the usual objective is to dazzle the audience with fantastical, previously unheard gleams of sound to complement the fantastical elements on screen.
Whether for budgetary or aesthetic reasons, the film eschews 5.1 surround and uses a straight two channel mix. The dialogue is live and apparently unlooped – you can hear the acoustic spaces. Washes of static come and go. Whirrs. Hums. Refridgeration units. The sounds of the everyday suburban landscape, amplified and brought closer in a manner that reminds me of paranoid 1970s’ thrillers like The Conversation. The sound of the first time machine operating was made, according to Carruth, by layering the sound of an angle grinder with a car. The later time machines are dry and mechanical. Not magical. Actual machines.
The music is sparse and tonal, mostly simple piano motifs over deep synthesizer pads, alternating with simpler tones and the occasional crescendo of noise, while there are nice little touches such as a musical motif reversing itself. The density of music and effects increases as the film goes on and the narrative fractures further. All these elements combine to give an overall effect of unsettling disorientation which complements the overall narrative.
Carruth – a former software engineer – has made much of how he wanted to present exciting scientific ideas in the manner in which they are usually discovered; undramatically and methodically, but this belies that it’s quite a sensuous experience to watch. It’s a film for geeks and cineastes alike, and a joy to revisit.
Watch the trailer for Primer: