In some ways Primer is the film The Martian was only pretending to be. The Matt Damon sci-fi action “comedy” (well, comedy by the Golden Globes’ measurement, anyway) was a hit last year that had people praising its supposedly ultra-scientific nerd-speak for not talking down to its audience & constructing a plot around basic old-fashioned problem-solving. Personally, I had a hard time seeing The Martian as much more than a crowd-pleaser balanced between a rescue mission drama & a big budget disaster pic, maybe with a little found footage thriller tossed in for flavor. Shane Carruth’s dirt cheap time travel paradox Primer, on the other hand, feels like truly authentic problem-solving nerd-speak. I can tell it’s authentic because I have no idea what’s going on and will probably need several more viewings & a notepad to catch up. The Martian may have charmed audiences into thinking they were getting the pure, uncut nerdy goods, but Primer was the real deal primo shit. I don’t think that it’s necessarily a better or more admirable movie for not speaking to a wide audience in a more toned-down, accessible version of nerd-speak, but I do think it was much closer to the intricate, intelligent movie a lot of people seemed to think they watched when they describe the much more audience-friendly The Martian.
Shane Carruth writes, directs, produces, scores, edits, and stars in this cerebral sci-fi cheapie about two tech world bros who accidentally discover a closed circuit version of time travel that allows them to loop into the future & back into their temporal starting point. It’s a little like a microwave that makes an instant, self-contained Groundhog Day experience. Before they realize what they’re even working on (it’s initially referred to as “the thing” & “the device”) the film pokes a little insider fun at the in-the-garage tech startup world of properties like Steve Jobs & Silicon Valley. Ancient analog equipment & other corner-cutting attempts to save money are played for subtle humor. All tech bros wear a Mormon-like uniform of a white dress shirt & striped tie. Corporate lingo is casually tossed around in a condescending tone. Carruth obviously knows this world intimately & it shows on the screen, but Primer doesn’t really come alive until it leaves the tech startup world behind & dives head first into the unknown. It’s about 30min into the film’s very slim runtime when mutliple timeline paradox versions of our unreliable narrator bros start constructing a mind puzzle for the audience to tinker with as they pull rugs, reveal betrayals, and get too comfy with a powerful force of nature they have no business manipulating in the first place: time.
I haven’t seen Carruth’s sophomore film, Upstream Color, since it left the theater in 2012, but I found that work to be an unmitigated masterpiece, one I mentally return to often just to mull over its many cerebral pleasures. In that context Primer feels like a young director with a limited budget just getting his legs. Much like Patrick Brice’s dual 2015 releases Creep & The Overnight, Primer is an exciting example of just how much a filmmaker can accomplish with a great script & a near-nonexistent budget (reportedly $7000 in Primer‘s case). The acting isn’t quite up to snuff with the writing here. The leads have a tendency to read their lines in a mumbled, stabby attack that often makes them difficult to decipher, especially in early scenes when they’re constructing & tweaking “the device.” However, the film has a lot of fun both tangling up a plot that would take hundreds of viewings to fully unravel & in delivering weird time travel one-liners like “Are you hungry? I haven’t eaten since later this afternoon,” and “It’s going to be a long day,” (meant literally). Primer makes a virtue out of telling, not showing and I feel like a lot of true-nerd science geeks probably would get the most out of its paradoxical conundrums & moral dilemmas.
Personally, I enjoyed & appreciated the film’s small-scale, verbal pleasures, but found a whole lot more to unpack in Carruth’s followup that was a hell of a lot more interesting than just mapping out what transpired plot-wise (which apparently is a thing entire fan sites Primer has inspired to do). Folks who enjoyed the nerdy step-by-step problem solving of The Martian would probably get even more out of it than I did. However, be forewarned. This movie is actually the real deal.