If you ditch work this afternoon and promise to do the few small things I ask of you, I will, in return, show you the most important thing that any living organism has ever witnessed.
Primer is kind of the ideal of the microbudget indie movie. It was made by a small group of friends and family members with Shane Carruth providing the screenplay, the direction and one of the lead performances and it cost, by most reports, under $10,000 to make. It’s gone on to achieve a level of real cult fandom with many film lovers, including Rian Johnson for one, to declare it the best time travel movie of all time.
It’s a simple premise. A couple of friends tinker around in their garage in their spare time; they’re not trying to make a time machine, but that’s what they end up doing, sort of backing into the discovery in a way that feels totally organic and real. The film is beautifully and atmospherically shot and features two great lead performances from Carruth and David Sullivan as the two friends who find themselves testing out their discovery to figure out what it can do, what it can’t and what good they can get out of it. The screenplay is really great. It doesn’t pause for you to keep up; the characters speak in really technical terms without explaining anything in the way a cheesier screenplay would and this lends it a real verisimilitude. At times, with the naturalistic acting, the realistic atmosphere and the realistic sounding dialogue, the film really does feel like a documentary. And as the film unfolds, things get more complicated and Carruth starts taking bigger and bigger leaps until, at some point in the third act, you as an audience member have to either take the leap into the deep waters the movie is leading you into or bail. If you want every plot point to be clear or every thread to be tied up or to understand everything about a movie, this is not the movie for you. For me, it’s a thrill. The feeling is of being in twelve-foot deep water; you can struggle to understand it as its happening or just let go and float on the movie’s unfolding narrative. Your head’s going to go under at some points no matter what, but you’ll do best if you let go. Realizations about this movie will be coming to you days later. Yes, let’s be honest; there are plot points here that are NEVER explained. Carruth has no problem with leaving, not just the ending, but significant moments in the story extremely ambigious and if you’re not ready to fill in some blanks yourself (Thomas Grainger. Just . . . just Thomas Grainger), Carruth is going to just leave them blank. For the wrong person, this movie will be deeply frustrating and infuriating. But if you kind of feel like you’ve seen just about every kind of movie there is and you miss the feeling of wonder that comes when you realize a movie just . . . has no limits, then Primer is the movie for you.
The movie ultimately adds up to a really dazzling experience. It feels like what might really happen if time travel was discovered, not by world-class scientists, but just accidentally by a couple of engineers down the street. The film ultimately flies apart into a dazzling, confounding, breathtaking montage that ties some things together in a breath-taking way and just sends you off into dizzying new territory in other ways. I really can’t overstate how impressive this movie is. Carruth is a breathtaking talent in this film; I don’t know how you even start to write this screenplay and he manages to also pull together a movie that looks carefully curated instead of looking cheap on a ludicrously small budget. Primer is a real trip, a mind-expanding, head-spinning and challenging movie that is also very character based and emotional. It’s absolutely a sci-fi masterpiece. It may not deliver as the most thrilling or epic time-travel movie, but it absolutely feels like the most accurate and grounded one. When time travel does come about, it won’t be with the blue flashes of a murderous robot blasting through the continuum to have a car chase; it’ll be a couple of guys dicking around just like Primer says. And if you’re confused, don’t look at them; they’ll barely understand it any more than you do. 4 stars.
tl;dr – Primer is confounding, strange and brilliant, a shockingly realistic vision of time travel and the way it might eventually be discovered; a science fiction masterpiece. 4 stars.