Primer-A Gordian Knot of a Film.


Shane Carruth’s 2004 debut, this film asks how scientists would discover time travel, and what would they do with this newfound potential. Rather than use time travel as an excuse to have an adventure in the Wild West, or see Casanova seduce Cleopatra, this film asks how people would react to accidentally having immense power, and what affect this power has on them.

It starts with four tech-types deep in discussion, arguing about how to progress with their so-far unsuccessful inventions. Two of them, Abe and Aaron, discover one invention is behaving in an unexplainable way and, after isolating the other two, realise they have accidentally invented a time machine.  Deciding not to share this with the world until they have fully worked out how it works, they decide to explore what is possible, and then exploit it for personal gain. As you can imagine, this doesn’t work out too well for them, as they struggle to understand what they are doing, and the consequences of what they do. On top of this, as they become more and more isolated, they become unsure of what and whom they can trust.

As shown by the trailer, this is a film of questions, a film of details. It is a technical triumph; made for only $7000, it never feels cheap, and its scope and ambition are both impressive. It is a film of people talking, arguing, failing to understand. But this fits with the piece. Here, time travel is done not by some flashy special effects, but through spending hours within a device. It is important that the discovery of time-travel, like many great discoveries, is done accidentally. The film strives for a genuine realism, with Carruth’s direction and writing easily evoking it without needing a large budget. Beneath the technical and cerebral is a very human heart. Abe and Aaron, despite their great intelligence, struggle to understand what they have done. They struggle to relate to people, both each other and those who still experience time chronologically. The film is made better by having a plot that is hard to follow, and in not showing us any scene without Abe and Aaron, as it puts us in the boots of the film’s protagonists.

There is no exposition in this film; no one turns to the camera to give a simple explanation of what is happening. These characters are scientists, and their dialogue reflects this, being full of technical language, with us simply eavesdroppers on their conversations. The late great Roger Ebert explained that ‘we don’t understand most of what they’re saying, and neither, perhaps, do they, but we get the drift. Challenging us to listen closely, to half-understand what they half-understand, is one of the ways the film sucks us in.’ This film cannot be watched casually, and even when one focuses, it is near impossible to follow. This will alienate some, but is incredibly rewarding to those willing to accept the film’s challenge.

There are plenty of fan theories trying to unravel the Gordian knot of this film’s plot. While they can make for fascinating reading, it is best to go into the film blind, just like its protagonists. It is also vital to accept that, just like the protagonists, we will never have all the answers to the film’s questions, no matter how hard we try to work it out. Similarly to A Field in England, it is a film to be discussed, a thought provoker. Described by the wonderful Film Crit Hulk (Forgive his ALL-CAPS) as ‘WONDERFUL BECAUSE YOU DON’T HAVE TO UNDERSTAND A LICK OF THE LOGIC TO ACTUALLY ENJOY IT. MORE THAN ANYTHING, THE FILM GETS YOU TO ASPIRE, what makes this film wonderful is how it strives to explore grand ideas, both about the universe and the humans that fill it.

Have you seen ‘Primer’? If so, please, join in the discussion. If not, it can be bought here.


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