A repeat-viewing brain twister to file along-side millennial puzzle films like Mulholland Drive and Memento, Shane Carruth’s Primer unites physics and metaphysics in an ingenious guerrilla reinvention of cinematic science fiction: Its analog-egghead approach may be the freshest thing the genre has seen since 2001. Less H.G. Wells than J.G. Ballard, Carruth’s prodigious no-budget debut (a surprise winner at Sundance) is also the nerdiest and most plausible time-warp fantasy that movies have ever dreamed up.
In a garage deep in the Dallas suburbs, four guys in corporate-drag white shirt and tie tinker away on a variety of science projects, hoping eventually to win financial reprieve from their day jobs. Aaron (Carruth) and Abe (a superbly antsy David Sullivan) break away from their pals to work covertly on a—well, it’s hard to say what exactly, but they call it “the box,” and it seems to involve an old catalytic converter and refrigerator copper tubing. Put a Weeble in it, and fungal proteins breed at an accelerated rate. Put a watch in it, and really inexplicable things start to happen. Before long, Abe and Aaron are talking about building a box big enough to get into . . .
At once clinical and lyrical, practically compactor-pressed at a mere 78 minutes, Primer exists in a haze of naturalistic confusion. Fitting for a film about the limits of knowledge, it doubles as an experiment in narrative inference. Scenes begin and end in medias res. Meaning is elided, occluded, or embedded in texture and ambience. The overlapping dialogue, a rush of lab-speak gobbledygook that at times resolves into a sort of techie poetry, suggests David Foster Wallace rewriting David Mamet.
Carruth daringly sustains the disquieting opacity for a full half-hour before—semi-spoiler alert—it finally becomes clear that Aaron and Abe have invented a time machine, and intend to use it daily. They crawl into coffin-like crates every afternoon, and six hours later, because the boxes reverse the flow of time for their occupants, it’s 12 hours earlier. Thanks in part to its lulling, voiceover-enhanced delirium, Primer evokes La Jetée, the mother of all time-travel loops. But Carruth gives his fantastical scenario a seductively prosaic veneer. The machine is rudimentary by sci-fi standards, and the film assumes as given the paradoxes bound to bedevil any attempt at chrono-manipulation. The protagonists casually remark on the toll of 36-hour days, tossing off lines like “I haven’t eaten since later this afternoon.” As physical impossibilities arise, so do ethical impasses: Living each day twice, Abe and Aaron exploit their prescience for stock market gains, but the prospect of absolute impunity soon brings to mind more grandiose abuses. Complicating matters, a double is spawned each time the machine is utilized—and that’s before we hear about the secret machine that one of them has been harboring, or contemplate the possibility of putting a time machine inside a time machine.
Shot for a purported $7,000 in Super 16, Primer is both a deadpan satire and a heartening embodiment of DIY enterprise (designed to attract repeat customers, it’s an unbeatable business model—a second go-round clears up many, but by no means all, of its mysteries). Carruth, an engineer with no previous film experience, shot only one take of every scene; his parents handled craft services and the cast double-dutied as crew.
Visual ideas keep pace with the onslaught of hard science: Grainy and overexposed, the film looks like it’s been irradiated. There’s no shortage of memorable images: a shower of hole-punch confetti, the harshly lit corridors of a storage facility, the windowed panels of a garage door shot to resemble a filmstrip. The polymath director, who shares cinematography credit and composed the atmospheric score, has devised a syntax to reflect the slippage inherent in his premise. Sound and image are often subtly out of sync. A narrator obfuscates point of view, switching from past to future conditional tense.
The final third—a what-the-fuck snarl of recursive cycles and causal short circuitry—is where Primer essentially turns into an experimental film (and to judge from festival screenings, loses a good number of its viewers). Earlier scenes recur, sinister side effects emerge (the time travelers—or their doubles?—suffer bleeding ears and wobbly handwriting), and there are the tiniest shreds of plot to pick out if you’re so inclined: a reverse-engineered act of heroism, a run-in with a potential funder who may have discovered their invention. The fissured disorientation powerfully conveys an infinite unraveling—a sense that nothing less than space-time as we know it is spinning off its axis.