Primer Movie Review
The film's opening is the pleasureable kind of confusion; we're immersed in scrappy, restless invention. Aaron (Shane Carruth, also the writer and director) and Abe (David Sullivan) are engineers tinkering around in a garage, hoping to come up with the next big invention. Through circumstances I am gladly ill-equipped to explain, they invent a device -- a box -- that can propel them back in time. Not months or years, mind you, but just a few hours or however long you want to spend inside: The effect is not instantaneous transport but rather moving backward three or four hours as the world moves forward.
Saying any more about the inevitable complications might spoil the film's surprises -- for you, the reader, for me, the reviewer who still isn't sure what happened. But so far, so intriguing, as first time writer-director Carruth piles on techie back-and-forth and the actors deliver it with matter-of-fact conviction.
The problem is that this tone continues for the duration of the film. Carruth tries to keep things level and to avoid melodrama, but he winds up bypassing regular drama, too. Major plot turns are conveyed with the same hushed chatter as background dialogue. There's nothing wrong with a sci-fi film attempting subtlety and ambiguity; look at Donnie Darko, a fascinating and entertaining movie that is nonetheless nigh-impossible to understand without annotated supplements (or a lot of far-fetched theorizing). But Darko is populated with enough interesting characters for two or three movies. Primer is a detached experience relying less on character and mood; the actors are fine but Aaron and Abe are too normal to stand out.
So Carruth is mainly interested in telling a great story, but his storytelling is needlessly elliptical. It creates the unusual feeling of falling asleep for twenty minutes in the middle, without you ever shutting your eyes. That elusiveness -- wait, did they just mumble something about a major plot twist? Was I just asleep? -- begins to feel like a marketing plot: If you've only seen it once, you haven't seen it at all... we promise.
It's to Carruth's credit that this plot works a bit; I do want to see Primer again (although more out of curiosity than artistic inspiration). It's made with skill and polish that belies its shockingly low $7,000 budget. The framing is precise, especially in the shots peering through the garage-door window, and the blown up 16mm cinematography looks simultaneously gritty and otherworldly. Carruth is a director to watch, but his movie is weirdly uncooperative. My experience watching Primer "just once" felt incomplete, thus so should my recommendation.
Two commentary tracks can be found on the DVD, but Carruth's comments focus more on camerawork and the technical side of the film rather than delving further into the plot. Frankly I could have used an explanatory chart with the various time travel moves explained, but alas, none is included.
Get ready to get ready to get ready.