To be perfectly honest, I don’t really want to tell you anything about Primer — except that you should find a copy, eliminate as many distractions as possible (no phones, internet, pets, babies, etc.) and watch it immediately. I know this sounds paradoxical coming from a column that gives you the scoop on obscure and overlooked films, but the best way to experience the film is to pop it into your DVD player and jump in cold. The less you know about Primer, the better.
But here’s a quick rundown anyway, for anybody who thinks this is a film about paint products: While working on an experimental superconductor in their garage workshop, engineers Aaron (Carruth) and Abe (Sullivan) accidentally create a time machine. Naturally, the two friends use the device to get rich playing the stock market — but eventually they use their newfound power to manipulate more than their bank accounts, entangling themselves in a series of temporal paradoxes so head-spinning it makes Back to the Future look like Timecop.
What makes Primer so unique is that it’s science fiction that downplays the “fiction” part of the equation. There’s no bogus “flux capacitor” or magic phone booth at work here — just a plain-looking metal box, two math nerds, and a barrage of techno-babble. The scientific jargon (which was heavily researched by writer-director Shane Carruth to be as authentic as possible) is never explained in layman’s terms, but makes the fantastical elements seem plausibly “real.” Carruth’s naturalistic lighting and set design also add to the verité feel, one result of working with a budget of only $7,000 (or, the cost of Tom Cruise’s custom shoe lifts). First-time filmmaker Carruth spent most of the money on Super 16mm film, and shot about 80 minutes of footage with no room for mistakes or reshoots. (Primer’s final runtime? A lean 78 minutes.) Determined to pump every dollar onto the screen, Carruth also produced, edited, and scored his film, as well as casting himself in one of the lead roles. His dad, Chip, even provided food for the five weeks of shooting.
After the first viewing, you might need a chart* to understand what the hell you just watched — and repeat viewings seem to raise as many questions as they do answers. Like its time-jumping protagonists, Primer manages to stay one step ahead of the viewer no matter how many times you watch it — but the fun part is trying to catch up.
* Luckily, somebody made one — but good luck deciphering it: neuwanstein.fw.hu/primer_timeline.html.