Jun 24 2009


Film Duel will for now be our primary mode of reviewing films in written form. Both James and Benn will write reviews independently, and then do a short comment on each other’s review.  This week Benn and James take on the super-indie film Primer, which received a lot of festival buzz and proved to be a bit of a puzzle even for our stalwart cinephiles.

Year: 2004
Dir: Shane Carruth
Written by: Shane Carruth
Starring: Shane Carruth, David Sullivan
Genre: Science Fiction

Benn and James’ reviews and rebuttals follow after the jump.

James says:

You know those people who constantly ask you, “What’s going to happen?”, “What’s going on?” or “Who was that guy?” who just got introduced? They ask the kind of questions that if they just waited a few scenes, they’d probably get the answer. You constantly fight off the urge to tell them to “just watch,” and sometimes you find yourself giving in and snapping at a good friend. Well, put simply, Primer is not the movie to watch with these types of people. In fact, when watching Primer, you may very well find yourself becoming one.

Primer, the 2004 independent science-fiction film written by, directed by, and starring Shane Carruth is the rare movie with no exposition, and no explanation of the more technical aspects of the film (and lets be honost, it’s pretty much all technical). For the purposes of this review, I’m going to try to keep from straying into spoiler territory. I’m also going to refrain from trying to explain the film (and let’s be frank, I don’t think I could if I wanted to). What I can say is, despite the fact that most of its audience won’t understand the entirety of the movie; the film still manages to succeed in many ways.

Primer manages to be fun despite its steep learning curve and its perplexing nature. You get a certain feeling from watching it, even when you’re at your furthest form understanding. Imagine a puzzle that you’ve been playing at for hours, and still can’t quite get. If you’re like me, you still probably were entertained by it, and admire the fact that there is in fact a solution, it’s just slightly out of your reach. Primer is one of those puzzles. And if you’re paying close attention, you will understand the arc of the characters and the story, if not all of the technicalities.

The dialogue is full of unabashed techno-babble. For the first fifteen minutes of the movie it’s probably that few viewers have any idea what the characters are talking about exactly, but they definitely get a feel for their interaction and motivations. It’s not unlike watching a Spanish soap-opera without the subtitles. Even though you don’t understand the language, you know what’s going on. And eventually, you do start to catch up with Primer‘s physics, and you feel all the more proud once you have. This does require a lot of patience on the part of the audience though, but it’s helped greatly by the sense of intrigue that surrounds the early scenes. And luckily, the script also buys time with the occasional display of entertaining wit.

The look of the film reveals its low budget nature, but manages to shepherd its flaws into something that serves the feel of the movie. Many of the scenes alternate between a green or a blue cast. This displays the office cubicle world that the characters find themselves trapped in, and all of its irritants along with it. The way they wear their uniform white shirts and ties everywhere deftly displays the fact that they define themselves as part of this world, no matter where they are, or what they’re doing. Repeatedly the question is asked, “Do you know what happens to engineer’s after they turn forty?” And when the characters finally get the answer, it’s certainly no comfort. This very cleverly gives them a sort of ticking clock motivation, the kind that easily explains their passion for time and scientific achievement

The movie’s plot is not without its flaws, regardless of whether it’s explainable by a master physicist. Some sub-plots which prove to be drastically important to the characters are glossed over very rapidly. The women of the film, who are almost enigmatic in their lack of screen-time, prove to also be very vital. As such, they should’ve received more substantial development and presence. And while the mystery of the film is good, it still feels as though not every piece of the puzzle is given to the viewer, as if a few got lost under the couch when opening the box. Primer plays games with its audience, and it does them cleverly, but perhaps it would be appropriate for the film to reveal its hand before the closing credits.

That said, there’s a feeling the audience gets when watching the film that is completely unique. One can’t help but marvel at it, filled with a sense of awe, knowing that the filmmakers have outsmarted them. The chase to keep up is a challenge, but it’s one the viewer will want to work at, even after they’ve felt the film slip away from them. For those who like a little intelligence in their science-fiction, this film is definitely worth a watch.

Benn says:

Time travel has been a popular device in science fiction, from Mark Twain’s A Yankee in King Arthur’s Court to England’s long-running television program “Doctor Who” to the beloved Eighties fantasy film “Back to the Future”. The idea of traveling through time offers an infinite number of storylines that offer all kinds of adventure, in all kinds of environments that often prove fantastic and exciting. Furthermore, time traveling also provides a number of themes derived from the question: What would you do if you could go backwards or forwards in time? Most of the thrill from this genre of science fiction comes from watching a character interact with past or future civilizations, and choosing how to use knowledge from the present to affect the past, as well as what information from the future will be used in the present. “Primer”, however, is not that kind of film.

In contrast to a typical time travel saga, “Primer” is about average people with average lives, jobs, and appearances who stumble upon the ability to travel into the past. Aaron (star, writer and directer Shane Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) work for an engineering company and moonlight as amateur inventors out of Aaron’s garage. While attempting to build a device (the device’s original intent is irrelevant), Abe discovers that it can be used to transport an individual back in time.

Rather than set off on an epic adventure through time, Abe and Aaron use the machine to frequently travel back six hours into their past to play the stock market. However, the potential of what they could achieve by knowing the day’s events becomes too tempting, and Aaron and Abe begin to travel back to fix various problems and attain control over their lives, and doing so often without the knowledge of the audience; if this sounds like it could get complicated, it does. And then some.

Unlike its average characters, the plotline to “Primer” is a tangled web of questions and unknowns, which prove to be the film’s greatest strength and weakness. On the one hand, the various intersecting timelines make the film very interesting to watch, and viewers cannot help but to get very involved in connecting the dots to the film’s continuity. On the other hand, the film’s timeline becomes so convoluted that the latter half of the film becomes an impossible puzzle; one might even miss out on the film whilst figuring out what is going on. Furthermore, the film’s dialogue is made up almost entirely of techno babble; unless you have a background in math and engineering, it is sure to leave audience members very confused and, once again, forcing them to spend too much time figuring out what the characters are saying and less time watching what is actually happening on screen.

The mind-numbing puzzle of the film’s plot is unfortunate, as “Primer” presents a fantastic idea concerning power, control, and the average man. Haunted by a popular company saying, “You know what they do to engineers after they turn forty? They shoot them,” the two aging engineers, Aaron in particular, obsessively attempt to calculate and control every aspect of their lives. Unable to engineer their lives according to plan, Abe and Aaron represent the Everyman in that their jobs, family life, and overall social status follow a predictable, yet unnoticeable progression that does not lead to failure, yet does not lead to worldwide recognition or success either.

Although “Primer” had the potential to explore a realistic concept concerning control over destiny and re-shaping of an uneventful life (a topic not often visited in time travel stories), the film opts to flaunt its complex, tightly interwoven storyline. Although this proves to be something of a distraction, anyone who watches this film cannot help but become entranced by the enigmatic mythos that “Primer” presents. You may not understand what is going on at the end of the film, but you will have a blast trying to figure it out.

Ben’s rebuttal:

I agree entirely with James.
For one, the technically-based dialogue might alienate people during the film’s introduction, but viewer should really just ignore it; it’s not all that important.  As for the puzzle that is the plot of “Primer”, it is enjoyable for those who watched the film with at least one other person, though it can be infuriating, as it does distract one from the bigger themes going on in the film.

James’ rebuttal:

Primer does miss a lot of oppurtunities to explore some of these themes in favor of its fascinating puzzle. When it comes down to it, I think I would’ve preferred the exploration of these adult ideas of control, power, time, etc. On the other hand, it’s not often we get a movie that’s as challenging as this, and I wouldn’t want to miss out on the fun I had trying. But overall this movie would’ve definitely been better with more character development and theme exploration.

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