Perhaps only third behind zombie films and emotional, character-driven dramas, time-travel gets explored regularly as a theme and is quite successful when it is. Within the last thirty years, we’ve been exposed to films such as Twelve Monkeys, Donnie Darko, Looper, and Midnight In Paris. One film that often goes under the radar is a 2004 film with a budget of $7,000, Shane Carruth’s Primer.
Abe (David Sullivan) and Aaron (Shane Carruth) are two Silicon Valley entrepreneurs that are on the hunt for an innovation that will bring them immense wealth and reputation. In the initial phases of their innovation, they begin building a box out of parts they can acquire in their home (Freon from Abe’s refrigerator, for instance) to create a sustainable power source that is more efficient than fossil fuels. Shortly after finishing the device, they realize that an organic protein that is normally grown in laboratory settings is cultivated at hundreds of times the normal rate inside their machine and they believe that this is where the money is. They quickly learn that this device is capable of much, much more– namely the ability to go back in time. Aaron and Abe begin to plot ways to use this machine to play the stock market, but underestimate the ramifications of time travel and create instability in their lives. On top of that, it’s clear that one of them has taken control, while the other is helplessly dragged along.
After nearly a year of maintaining this podcast and blog, Primer is easily the most dense film to fall into our laps. Movies like Midnight In Paris or Safety Not Guaranteed rely on a suspension of disbelief; in other words, they just work. Other films like Looper or Back to the Future have a basic level of scientific theory behind them, but we quickly understand the premise. Primer decides to lay out a mode of time travel that is almost infinitely complex and would require multiple viewings and an evidence board to fully understand, so I won’t attempt to explain in this blog post– however, the results are so incredibly satisfying that it’s worth the initial struggle of wrapping your head about the premise. In it’s most basic form, the time travel in Primer involves a box that will send you back to a specific point in time that you decide, should you choose to return. Because of this, a “duplicate” of the time-traveler is present in another timeline and much diligence is required to keep the duplicate and the time-traveler from intersecting and creating a whole mess of problems.
The genius of Primer is not in the film’s complexity, but the simplicity of everything else that makes it truly special. If you watch the film with the lens of “why” people are acting certain ways and not “how” they’re doing things, pieces of the puzzle start to fall into place. The film also does a miraculous job of using Christopher Nolan’s patented “wrap-up” technique where bits and pieces of the movie are replayed with more context, painting a more complete picture. On top of that, the film was made with a mind-bogglingly small budget of $7,000 and it never feels cheap– everything is well-crafted and has clear passion and purpose.
Matt: Watch Gabe: Watch