Primer is an independent, low-budget science fiction movie about time travel with a cult following. On the one hand the time-travel is great, simple, and elegant. At the same time it’s also a complex, confusing web that with a bit of effort you can sort of follow. Unfortunately the characters are moronic idiots who act without thinking. It’s worth noting that Primer was more-or less created by a one-man-band. Shane Carruth wrote it, directed it, acted in it, produced it, edited it and scored it all on a budget of $7000.
Primer uses genuine scientific language, based on actual theories. What slightly irritated me was that with all this the characters jump straight to human testing. I fully understand the need for plot momentum, but after roughly 20 minutes discussing the theory they couldn’t have popped a rat in there? Not to mention (another hollywood clique) the inventors testing the invention on themselves. They did not intend to make a time machine; it could have been a box of death! And who is supposed to be recording the results of these experiments (or the effects on their health)? Have they just ditched the scientific method altogether?! To be brutally honest? It’s about as scientific as the Fantastic Four (2015) drunk-testing the Quantum Gate (albeit earlier).
Maybe I’m not understanding the thrill of having a time machine. One of the effects they discover is that things inside ‘the box’ actually experience all the time they travel through. They discover this in the form of super-old fungus that they grew in the machine. So… does it ever occur to them that the more they use it to get ‘perfect moments of time’ ala Groundhog Day they are actually ageing and therefore shortening their life spans? If so, they never discuss it. They do experience signs that time travel is detrimental to their health (Aaron, who has been doing more time-travelling, suffers worse). Personally I’d be inclined to use it sparingly and for more worthwhile uses than ‘punching a guy in the face to see what it feels like’ (what are they, five-year-olds?!)
Then there’s the paradoxes. The characters actually discuss them, then the movie demonstrates zero consequences for creating one. SPOILER: Aaron travels back in time, locking his original self up in the attic. The paradox he’s created is that Aaron would not be able to lock himself in the attic if he is locked in the attic. Maybe this won’t bother everyone, and admittedly a lot of Science Fiction is guilty of the same sin, but it bugged me. I was sort of expecting the Reapers from Doctor Who to turn up and clean up the time-line.
RANTY SPOILER: I also didn’t get how the characters seem perfectly okay with screwing over their own time-travel clones. Why would you do that? Couldn’t you think of anything better to do? That’s YOU! Haven’t you ever wondered what it’d be like to make-out with yourself? Now is your chance!
There are possible explanations for the time-travel clones in the storyline such as a worm-hole to another dimension, but this is never brought up in the movie. Admirers of Primer say it’s “making us think for ourselves”, on the other hand it could be lazy writing. Once more the characters seem to have no sense of self preservation. Setting up a safer experiment (not on themselves) would A. have demonstrated to the audience the concept of duplication in a less confusing way and B. made Aaron seem like less of an idiot for risking his life needlessly. Is it really so nerdy to want science in my science fiction movie?
The style of the movie is non-linear with a lot of jump cuts. Some make sense (what with the time-travel and all) but some are just there for the hell of it. This is not especially helpful to performing a coherent narrative. Some parts of the story are not seen on screen including what sounds like the most exciting part SPOILER where Aaron disarms a gunman! The majority of Primer is just Abe and Aaron talking. The actors are not particularly charismatic. Their actions do not have any sensible motivation and are therefore very difficult to relate to. This was a big turn-off for me. I could probably have forgiven the characters for being stupid if they’d been relatable.
Apparently the creators had originally intended to film more footage showing the characters motivations and backstory. I have no doubt this would have made a huge difference to how I connected to the movie. Unfortunately the lack of it creates a hole and it’s a shame they couldn’t have completed it. I thought the concept of the Time Travel Boxes themselves was very strong and elegant. The camerawork is also very creative and engaging. If you are interested in cinematography it’s worth looking at for that.
So, is Primer a good ‘primer’ for time-travel concepts? It brings a lot of concepts together and it’s fun unravelling the increasingly complex timeline. It’s perfectly possible you’ll be concentrating too hard on figuring out what’s going on to worry to much about why. It makes me interested to see what Shane Carruth would do on a bigger budget.