Monday, 19 May 2014

Review: Primer

Independent filmmaker Shane Carruth's debut feature Primer (2004, trailer) takes time-travel - a story concept typical of epic sci-fi action - and aims to present it in a realistic way using only a miniscule $7000 production budget.  

Engineers Aaron (Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) discover that a cube-shaped device they are working on has the unexpected capacity to transport its contents through time.

It'll be fun, promise.

Specifically, anything that enters the box after it is turned on will emerge at the time the box was turned on. So if the box is turned on at 6:00, one of the guys climbs in at 12:00 and stays inside for six hours, then they will emerge at 6:00.

My Take

Many Hollywood films are criticized for holding the audience's hand too much, but Primer does the complete opposite and sails right over my head from minute-one. Here are some dialogue excerpts and my reactions from the first scene - Aaron, Abe and two more Dilbert-looking engineer pals conversing:

'Have you thought anymore about what you want to put forward?'

'Not really.'

'Because I was-'

'-I mean, I haven't changed my mind or anything.'

'Phillip and I were talking, we think it'd be good. It'd be fun.'

I'm already lost. What's going on? Put forward what? What would be fun? 

'Look, how many patents do we have? In the last 14 months? Did you sign the agreement?'

'Nobody signed the agreement.'

'It doesn't matter, we're sticking to the agreement. Name one other thing that's come out of that garage that's remotely profitable. I know I don't see anybody quitting their jobs because of it. I know I'm not, are you?'

Okay, they are trying to sell patents and start a company together.

'I think Abe just means that, right now, the JTAG cards are it. And when you look at the addresses on these things, we have a lot of apartments, you know, a lot of residences. But these are not the bulk orders to OEMs or retail giants.'

'Yeah, hacker wannabes testing their dads' old motherboards. And I know that a lot of that is my fault, admittedly, you know. With everything last year. With everything last year, and the doubletalk we were getting from Platts, and all the stuff we're not gonna get into now-'

'We definitely should at least let Platts know we're talking about it.'

'Look, forget Platts. And this has got to start being about what has the best chance of going to market, and what is going to get us that VC attention.'

Lost again. JTAG cards? OEMs? VC? What are these things? Who is Platts? Am I missing important information?

A lot of Primer consists of this kind of opaque technical talk. I guess if, like Shane Carruth, you have a degree in mathematics, experience working as an engineer, and an extensive knowledge of speculative science-fiction technology, then you are one of the elite few qualified enough to appreciate Primer. It's the least inclusive film I've ever seen.

The technical talk only gets worse then Abe and Aaron start tweaking the time machine. Now I'm hearing about catalytic converters, copper tubing, palladium, coolant, mercury baths and 0.05 liters of argon.

You built a time machine out of a mercury bath and a catalytic converter?

This fan-made explanation very helpfully translates this talk into layman's terms. Thank goodness that plucky bloggers are around to explain these things; Lord knows Shane Carruth couldn't care less whether I know what's happening in his film. 

While I would be bored by any movie that spends a lot of time on pedantic technological details, I feel it is especially pointless in this instance because time travel is impossible.

The filmmakers behind the great time travel movies know that the question of how the time travel works is pretty much irrelevant. Instead, they use their films to explore compelling hypothetical questions. Back to the Future asks: 'What if you could meet your parents when they were your age?' Terminator 2 asks: 'Would you kill an innocent man who you know will be responsible for the deaths of many?'

These questions are what's interesting to me. I couldn't care less how the time travel works; if I've decided to watch a time travel film, then I've already agreed to suspend my disbelief as far as the time travel stuff is concerned.

The two leads of Primer are as dry and uninspired as their technobabble. When Abe tells Aaron that he has discovered 'the most important thing that any living organism has ever witnessed', he delivers the line in a flat, mumbling drone. When they start to plan their time travels, they casually refer to their 'doubles' in the same monotone.

If I found out that someone built a time machine and that I could go back in time and see my double, I'd find that incredibly shocking and mind-blowing - and I don't know nearly as much about science and physics as Primer's characters do. How 'bout some vim, vigor and excitement?

'This is the most exciting day of my life.'

There were actually a couple of things about Primer's 'realistic' approach that I thought could have been interesting. For one thing, the guys discover the time-travel capacity of the box because they see that a tiny fungus, 'aspergillus ticor', has grown in it at a much faster rate than it could have in real-time. The contrast between such an incredible science-fiction technology and its discovery through such a mundane clue was almost comedic to me.

Likewise, Abe and Aaron make painstaking plans to make sure that they don't risk being seen by their doubles: 'I got a hotel room and tried to isolate myself...I closed the windows, I unplugged everything in the room, the telephone, TV, clock-radio, everything...I just took myself out of the equation.' The idea that a machine with such amazing possibility forces the characters into such a boring, unsexy situation also has comedic possibility.

I thought: What if this movie was about a persnickety scientist who wants to carefully avoid paradoxes, and his regular-guy friend who wants to have cool time-travel adventures? Then there could be lively conflicts, colorful characterization and a relatable emotional storyline. You know, fun movie stuff?

So when these guys actually start time traveling, things get way more complicated. They somehow go back in time to before the machine was created, find additional time machines with unclear origins, and make recordings of themselves in the past so that they know what to say when they go back to avoid arousing suspicion.

Another Primer fan has created this monumentally boring-looking chart to explain the plot of the movie. If the chart is to be believed, then the movie has nine different timelines. Even people who like the movie claim that it must be watched at least three times with subtitles to be properly understood.

This to me seems too wilfully obscurant. Why should a film require so much work from me? Why doesn't the filmmaker want to guide me through his story and make himself understood? Shane Carruth is like a personal trainer who sprints way past my jogging pace and yells 'Come on, faster. It's your fault you can't run as fast as I can!' over his shoulder.

One of the plot points involves a character called Rachel getting shot, although we neither meet this character, nor do we see her get shot. Abe and Aaron find out that a guy called Granger (Chip Carruth) has been using the time machine; but we don't know who Granger is, we don't know how he found out about the machine, we don't know how he learned to use it, and we don't know what he's trying to accomplish with it. None of the story threads are involving.

The characters themselves get confused about the whole time travel mess. I get that the intention is that these guys are in way over their heads, but Primer started with just me being confused, and it ends with everyone confused. Aaron starts to inexplicably bleed from his ear, and both he and Abe somehow lose their ability to handwrite in anything neater than a childlike scrawl.

Now that nobody's confused, let's move on.

Primer has quite a high (73% 'Fresh') average score on critic site Rotten Tomatoes. The consensus is that Primer is an 'unapologetically cerebral' film that defiantly challenges its viewers, rather than pandering to them. Me, I'm just not interested in keeping up with the frantic sprinter that is PrimerI'd rather have a trainer who will start off slow, and gradually bring me up to his pace.


Further Reading

For more about science fiction, see my post about Black Mirror.

For more wilful obscurantism, see my post about Under The Skin.

Screengrabs: Primer was produced by ERBP. Images obtained from
© Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and 'NickGBrown On Films', 2012-14. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this weblog's author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and NickGBrown On Films with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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