Does Judge Eric Profancik think this film violates the Prime(r) Directive? Read on!
What happens if it actually works?
In the three years that I have been writing for DVD Verdict, I've never watched a movie I was reviewing more than once. Let me rephrase that: I have watched a movie and then watched it again because of a commentary track or two, but I've never had the need, urge, want, or desire to watch a movie a second time before writing my review. With Primer, that streak was broken. At the end of this movie, I knew I had to watch it again, and I did. Why? I hope I can explain that.
Facts of the Case
Aaron, Abe, Robert, and Phillip are friends who get together most nights to do some work in Aaron's garage. After putting in long hours at their day jobs, the four tinker about trying to invent something, anything that is new, innovative, and marketable. They're on an extremely tight budget, so these intelligent men know how to salvage necessary parts from any source—notably their own cars and kitchen appliances. So far, they've had minimal success, making it difficult to grab the attention of any venture capitalists.
But soon Aaron and Abe stumble across something that may work. Keeping Robert and Phillip out of the loop, Aaron and Abe work on an extension of a diamagnetic superconductor and create a device that appears to damper the gravitational pull on an object, thereby reducing its weight. They have much work to do and many unanswered questions, but the two put month after month into the device, trying to figure out how to make it work and what to do with it. However, Abe makes a discovery that will change the entire foundation of their pet project.
The antigravity device is not a large object, maybe three square feet, and easily fits on a tabletop. Aaron and Abe have been using a Weeble inside the device to measure the change in its weight. But every few days, Abe has had to clean an odd growth off the toy. Finally, he decides to have it analyzed to find out what's growing in their invention. It turns out to be the most common bacteria in the world—Aspergillus Ticor—and not at all exceptional. What he soon discovers to be exceptional, though, is the amount of fungus brought in. According to his scientist friend, this week's worth of scraping should take well over five years to cultivate. How can this fungus grow so fast in the machine? Is that what the machine truly is, a fantastic new incubator?
No, it isn't.
Abe quickly deduces that their device has another, more important function: It changes the flow of time. He tests his theory and proves that time can be manipulated and forced into a parabolic function inside the box. With great excitement, he shares this discovery with Aaron.
The two then begin to wonder what they can do with this fantastic invention. Is it marketable? Should they patent it? No. They decide to use it themselves and travel back in time to make money off the stock market. But after several trips, an unexpected problem arises and the two have to figure out what has changed in the timeline. Aaron and Abe scramble to piece together the puzzle and attempt to fix whatever damage has been done.
At this point, you are probably thinking that Primer sounds like your garden-variety science-fiction time-travel story. For the most part, that is an accurate description of the movie. It doesn't shatter any preconceived notions, but it does take a slightly new twist on this old tale, keeping the viewer interested in the developments.
But first, you need a quick history on the background of this film. Primer is the creation of Shane Carruth, who is the writer, director, producer, musical composer, cinematographer, editor, and actor (he plays Aaron) of this independent film. With just $7,000, Carruth made this little gem that went on to win the Grand Jury Award and the Alfred P. Sloan Award at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival. The film generated some great buzz, and it's developed quite a fan community. I've visited several boards about the movie, and some interesting discussion is going on about Primer. That's something to keep in mind, but let's put that aside for a moment.
Let me now try to explain what is going on with Primer that necessitated multiple viewings on my part. The film runs a lean 77 minutes, and though Carruth doesn't feel his film follows the typical three-act form, I do believe it can be broken into three distinct parts:
• Part One—The Exposition: Constituting the first twenty minutes of the film, here we meet the characters and their attempts at making some fantastic new invention. The antigravity device is built and tested, but its bigger discovery lies ahead. This segment's saving grace is the dialogue and interaction between the four friends. In his previous life, Carruth was an engineer, so he took that knowledge and used it in the film. As such, there is real science in what the four men talk about. They are realistically talking about real science. This anchor in reality is a refreshing and riveting change from the Hollywood heavy-handedness of making things up just to tell a story ("technobabble"). You may not understand what is being said, but you can sense that there is hard science at work and you pay close attention to see what you can pick up.
• Part Two—The Time Machine: For the next 34 minutes, we follow the path as the two figure out that their machine can manipulate time through to their first temporal excursions. What to watch for here is the different, cautious approach the two have toward the discovery. It's not false excitement but raw curiosity, wonder, and fear. It's the scientific examination and extrapolation of what they have uncovered. And as the two begin to travel in time, the explanation posited is unique from any other I've stumbled across in my sci-fi viewings. Even the diagram that Aaron draws to help him understand the process won't completely alleviate your confusion. It will take a while to sink in. This lack of understanding is one key reason Primer necessitates multiple viewings.
• Part Three—The Unraveling: Starting at the 54-minute mark of the film, chaos ensues. Something completely unexpected happens, throwing Aaron and Abe for a loop. They can't figure out what exactly is happening, and neither can you. (As detailed in the director's commentary, this was very much done on purpose. The film does not provide any evidence to account for this situation. You, as a viewer, are meant to be lost, just like Aaron and Abe.) But the confusion doesn't end with this first situation, for another twist comes out of nowhere. Without going into any details, there is a shocking incident at some event. This incident and the person responsible are mentioned only fleetingly in the film, yet the final moments of Primer seem to hinge on the outcome of this event. It's difficult to understand why this situation is important—especially since it's passed by without a problem the first time—and how Aaron and Abe arrive here, for the film fails to offer much information. Additionally, because this is a pivotal moment for Aaron and Abe, the film implies that they have tried to manipulate the event on multiple occasions; hence, how many Aarons and Abes are in this timeline?
This seemingly critical moment that manifests from nowhere is what makes you want to watch this film again. What did I miss? Was I not paying attention the first time? What clues were laid out? It's like when you saw The Sixth Sense and wanted to go back to make sure the twist ending followed its own rules through the beginning of the film. You need to go back and watch Primer because this event didn't seem important until the end. Does the film follow its own rules? I must admit that the pieces still don't entirely fit together for me. Primer doesn't make sense to me, but I'm not upset by that. I'm still wondering what I missed. I have this feeling that I'm missing something clever that will tie it together. (Maybe this vital clue happens between 16:00 and 16:12 in the film. I don't know because my disc won't play for those 12 seconds.) Even after watching the film four times now (two more times for the commentary tracks), I think I will give it just one more try. I want to understand it. I've never had that desire in a film before. As mentioned earlier, I've even gone out to various bulletin boards to see what people have to say about the film. They are a very passionate lot, and many of them have put together some extremely detailed analyses of the film. In fact, they're so detailed, I can't even understand them!
Do you recall the budget I mentioned earlier? $7,000. That's quite a paltry amount, and it is unfortunately apparent in Primer. This film is Carruth's first, and while it has so much going for it in the story, the technical merits of the film leave much to be desired. Luckily, Carruth is well aware of the numerous mistakes he made in this arena; he fully admits to them in his commentary track. As such, you need to know about them too. And, yet, like the mystery of fully understanding this film, these technical flaws shouldn't keep you from giving this film a go. On the video side, the two main problems are focus and light. Many shots are out of focus, and many others just have bad lighting. With the audio, cheap microphones and audio equipment were used so that much of the dialogue is muffled or almost overwhelmed by background noises (in spite of the dubbing Carruth claims). I can't remember the last time I saw a film that was so technically flawed.
One last item I will comment on is the acting of this novice group. Many have lamented the quality of acting here, saying it is weak and amateurish and detracts from the film. I didn't mind the acting at all; in fact, I was rather impressed by David Sullivan (Abe) and Shane Carruth. I think they did an excellent job bringing these characters to life. If Carruth were to foolishly decide to abandon filmmaking, which he should not, he could grow into a solid actor.
So now that I've piqued your curiosity about Primer and you might want to pick it up, what will you find on the DVD? I am happy to report that this indie disc is free from the barrage of warnings and trailers we've come to dread. You put in the disc, and it goes right to a menu—a relatively well-crafted menu, albeit a slow one. The film is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, and it ably captures all of the problems I noted above (blurriness, bad lighting, et cetera). Additionally, there was some quick artifacting in the scene where Aaron and Abe use the machine the first time and an odd rainbow-colored mark during the "shoe throwing" scene. Both are brief but noticeable. (And don't forget that my disc also locked up at the 16-minute mark.) I should also mention that due to the lighting difficulties, the color palette swings around wildly from scene to scene: Outdoor day scenes are awash in yellow, night scenes are just washed out and grainy, garage scenes are green, while other indoor scenes are a sterile blue. It's hard to quantify the color accuracy in this film as a result. As well, sharpness and detail are lacking, most likely as a result of the 16mm film being blown up to 35mm.
Now, let's finally move on to the audio. Your only option is a Dolby Digital 2.0 mix that is merely adequate. As noted earlier, in many scenes, background noises almost overtake the dialogue. When away from those scenes, dialogue is still a bit hard to follow. There are a few instances of interesting sound effects—for the time machine—and those come across nicely. Also nice is the simple yet effective score from Carruth. Fortunately, there are English (and Spanish) subtitles on the disc, which I found very useful when watching the film.
Funny, as much as I just raked the film/disc over the coals, I don't think that should stop you from considering it. It has received low technical scores, but that's just half the story.
The DVD comes with a few bonus items, but I think Carruth had plans for a more extravagant disc but wasn't able to pull it all together. You get a commentary with only Carruth and a second track with a bunch of the cast and crew. I found the Carruth-only track to be the better choice, even if he is technically focused. I was hoping to learn more about the story and what was going on, but neither track fit the bill. The cast and crew were mostly just a bunch of old friends getting together and having fun—not that they didn't impart some interesting morsels along the way. Also included is the trailer. In the commentaries, Carruth mentions some featurettes he's working on for the disc. At least on my copy, they aren't there.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I believe I've covered things fairly well, so I'll spend half a moment talking about the title of the movie. What does Primer mean? How does it relate to the film? Sorry, I'm not going to tell you that either, since that would reveal an interesting part of the film—once you make the connection between the two. However, I will tell you that the title appears to have no relevance to prime numbers.
I have had some negative things to say about Primer, but the bottom line is that the technical detractions should not let you miss a fascinating, fresh, and innovative film. This film represents what independent filmmaking—actually, all filmmaking—is all about: bringing life and a new perspective to something we think we've seen before. Primer is a complex film that will compel you to view it again and again. You'll be rewarded for your work with something that will make you think and will spur conversation. I wholeheartedly recommend this film. Go out, give it a rental, grab a big group of friends, and have a great evening. It will provoke hours of discussion, and one of you, if not more, will want to add this one to your collection, blemishes and all.
Primer is hereby found guilty of violating the temporal prime directive…I think. Since I'm not really sure, they are free to go.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
• Commentary by Director Shane Carruth
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