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Director: Shane Carruth
Screenplay: Shane Carruth
Stars: Shane Carruth (Aaron), David Sullivan (Abe), Casey Gooden (Robert), Anand Upadhyaya (Phillip), Carrie Crawford (Kara), Jay Butler (Metalshop Worker)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 2004
Country: U.S.
Primer DVD
Primer The engineering trickery and ingenious work of the two after-hours inventors in Shane Carruth's low-key sci-fi mindbender Primer aptly reflects its writer/director/star's own cinematic cleverness. Using scant resources and a miniscule budget, Carruth has gotten the most bang for his buck by crafting an ingenious existential thriller.

There is nothing gaudy or flashy in Primer aside from its ideas and its willingness to set in motion a premise that leads the audience into increasing narrative and visual fragmentation. This was a gamble on Carruth's part, as it could have led to frustration and resentment. But, given the popularity of "puzzle movies," particularly in the wake of Memento (2001), it was a solid gamble and one that has paid off handsomely with film festival awards and a cult following of viewers who are still trying to untangle its mysteries and unlock its secrets. At a tight, well-rounded 78 minutes, Primer is the kind of film that both demands and rewards repeat viewings.

Like the greatest science fiction stories, Primer works on a simple premise, with the main goal being the exploration of how science affects humanity. In this case, two mechanical engineers, Aaron (Shane Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan), who spend their off-work hours fiddling in Aaron's garage, invent a device that allows for time travel. The invention is purely an accident; they discover that its time-traveling function is literally an unintended byproduct. This doesn't stop them, of course, from using it, first for something as mundane and materialistic as playing the stock market, but later for more ambitious and subsequently dangerous purposes.

To reveal much more about what happens would be to cheat anyone who hasn't seen the film, but suffice it say that Primer's core theme -- the nature of trust between Aaron and Abe -- is severely taxed by their use of the machine. Once time becomes malleable, anything that happens or any actions in which one engages becomes fluid, rather than fixed. Things can be undone and changed, but not without other consequences (a topic dealt with more bluntly and less effectively in The Butterfly Effect). Carruth's screenplay is exceedingly clever in the way it slowly peels away layers and reveals things while simultaneously layering on more ambiguity and mystery.

Primer was made for the reported sum of only $7,000, but it looks great. Carruth pulled a Robert Rodriguez by acting as a one-man moviemaking machine -- writing, producing, directing, and playing a lead role, in addition to editing, scoring, designing many of the sets, and even producing the film's one CGI effect on his home computer. About the only thing he didn't do was cater the food (he left that to his parents, whose suburban Dallas, Texas, house served as one of the primary locations).

Carruth made the wise decision of eschewing the typical low-budget route of digital video and instead investing in Super 16mm, which gives the film a more hazy, dreamlike vibe that plays counter to its tech-geek dialogue and twisty sci-fi concepts. The sharp delineation of video would have been too obvious. Carruth and cinematographer Anand Upadhyaya (who also plays a small role) make excellent use of a limited number of locations, and they give the film a slightly futuristic, slightly disconnected look with a heavy use of blue, green, and yellow hues, some of which were simply the result of using available light.

Although it starts out slowly (or perhaps because it starts out slowly), Primer works its way under your skin, slowly drawing you into its story until it immerses you in its time-warping head games. If Carruth just wanted narrative trickery, the film would have been an engaging, but ultimately shallow affair. But, because he keeps the characters front and center, giving them palpable lives and believable emotions, he invests his concepts with the spark of humanity that too many Hollywood movies can't quite grasp. Primer is a puzzler to be sure, but it's a human puzzler, one that asks probing questions about the nature of friendship and trust in its exploration of the potentially disastrous appropriations of a God-like power.

Primer DVD

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
Audio English Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround
SubtitlesEnglish, Spanish
  • Audio commentary by writer/director Shane Carruth
  • Audio commentary by cast and screw
  • DistributorNew Line Home Entertainment
    Release DateApril 19, 2005

    Primer was shot on Super 16mm and then blown up to 35mm for theatrical distribution, and it looks like this transfer was taken from a 35mm print. Overall, the contrasty image looks very good for 16mm, with strong color saturation, respectable detail, and a minimum of intrusive grain. The image definitely looks grainier than a typical 35mm production (especially in the darker scenes), but to me it's a fundamental part of the film's aesthetic and I couldn't imagine it looking any other way.

    If you listen to Carruth's commentary, he spends quite a bit of it noting how bad he thinks the film's soundtrack is (some 50% of the dialogue had to be re-recorded). I chalk this up to the perfectionist in him because the Dolby Digital two-channel soundtrack on this disc sounded fine to me. Granted, it doesn't have the slick polish of a big-budget film, but the dialogue was always intelligible and didn't sound dubbed, and the subtle ambient sound effects work quite well, as does Carruth's low-key musical score.

    Those looking for "the answers" in the two screen-specific commentaries, one by Carruth alone and one by him with members of the cast and crew, will be disappointed. However, those looking for an engaging and sometimes funny nuts-and-bolts discussion of low-budget filmmaking will find much to chew on here. Carruth's solo commentary is particularly informative about everything from filming in his parents' house, to creating digital effects on his home computer, to the difficulties in getting permission to shoot at commercial locations.

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © New Line Home Entertainment

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