Shane Carruth, Anand Upadhaya, David Sullivan, Casey Gooden.
Dolby Digital 2.0.
English, English subtitles.
"Dude, hold it when you pee!"
Primer is Shane Carruthís brainchild. He directed, wrote, produced, starred in and edited it. He also did some of the filming and sound. Multitalented bloke, eh? The film is initially about a group of four enterprising men who work for a large company by day, and on their own time look for the next big invention to make their names and their fortunes. But the film is really about time travel, its possibilities, and its ramifications.
For a film reputedly made for about seven thousand of those Yankee dollars, Primer is gorgeous. When you consider that some films that have budgets in the millions and still look as cheap as shit, itís a bit of a miracle. One thing that may disappoint is that there are no flashy special effects. None. At all. Whatsoever. I know, itís hard to believe that time travel can be done without psychedelic whirling colours or CGI, but stick with it. The original filming was done on Super 16. Which means that the DVD picture is grainy, but it helps keep the lo-fi feel constant. It looks like a documentary made for peanuts that somehow made it big.
The environments are real; because you canít build sets on a tiny budget (well, you could probably build one), Carruth filmed in the actual settings featured. Shots of the eggheads talking things over in a house were filmed in a house. Scenes of them working in a garage were filmed in a garage. The technology they use is slightly behind the times, cobbled together, salvaged and repaired, because that's what a bunch of people running experiments out of their own pockets would use. And so on. This is Carruthís first film, but you canít tell by the direction. Heís not afraid to deal with close, cramped, crowded scenes. Nor is he worried about pulling back, shooting from many different camera angles, or switching to handheld. Just starting out and heís a fuck of a lot more versatile than a lot of big name directors.
"No, Brad, I'm not starring in Fight Club! Fuck off!"
Use of lighting and colour is sharp, with exteriors often bathed in a golden haze, flashbacks washed-out and pale, interiors ranging from jaundiced, institutional green to cool steel blue. Use of shadow is kept to a minimum, reserved for some of the more dramatic scenes, where there are more things hidden than revealed, nicely mirroring the story.
Sound-wise, itís limited. Again, the constraints of a small budget bear down like some immensely fat masseuse. Itís all pretty similar in theme, tone and tempo, probably because almost all of it is Carruth plinking away with very little resources, but he steers clear of cheese at least. Some of the dubbing (again, the small budget strikes ) isnít fantastic either, but youíll hardly notice.
Abe (Sullivan) and Aaron (Carruth) are the real nucleus of the group, and the film is almost wholly concerned with them. Both are fantastic, I shit you not at all. Abe is the slower, more cautious and conscientious of the two. He really helps the audience understand how dangerous and how important time travel is, explaining the dangers, scribbling rules and meticulously avoiding shitting in the eye of causality. Aaron provides a sharp contrast, even physically distinct from Abe (who has blonde hair, Aaronís is dark). Quick, impulsive, even rash, Aaron is certainly the driving force of the group, and sees a lot more potential than he does risk.
All the other actors have fairly small roles, but they act perfectly adequately. The other two members of the group arenít even actors (Upadhaya is a fucking cameraman) but you wouldnít know it. The group dynamic is very well done, talking over and under each other, especially when theyíre being all mad-scientisty, trading jargon back and forth and throwing switches, screaming ďITíS ALIIIIIVE!Ē
Okay, not the last one.
"I'm going back to before you puked all over the fucking floor. Get out!"
The four seem to have their own little club. They have a company name and logo. Their dress code seems to carry over into their private lives, and itís a rare moment when you see one of them not wearing the uniform of trousers, shirt and tie. Whether removing a catalytic converter from a car, building an antigravity device, salvaging parts from a microwave or going to a party, they do it dressed like they just escaped from the office. Made me laugh, anyway.
Itís a little bewildering at first, I will admit. You have to pay attention and listen as they interrupt, contradict and insult each other, sometimes carrying on two parallel conversations in impenetrable tech-speak. Itís a good representation of a group brought together by common interests but with little actual social cohesion. Itís plain some of them donít like each other, and these petty dislikes are there from the off, adding a nice bit of depth. Contrary to other reviews, you donít have to be a math geek, or a science nerd, or an engineer or anything of that sort to understand this film. You donít even have to be intelligent. All you have to do is be prepared to do some thinking.
I flat-out do not understand the attitude that entertainment and brain usage are mutually exclusive. Why do audiences demand mindless entertainment and refuse to draw their own conclusions? Why should your thoughts about the film end when the credits roll? Why must every branch of storyline be successfully (i.e. happily) concluded? When did passivity become a valid response? Why on fucking Earth do people refuse to take an active part in their own entertainment?
Why can films no longer be intellectually stimulating without taking flak? It's like the entire medium
has had a downgrade, and if you want something that will make you go "Hmm." you have to look elsewhere.
Jesus H. Christ, what is wrong
with you people? Answers on a postcard please.
But I am tired of folk trying to pigeonhole art, to make themselves feel more comfortable. Donnie Darko has been mentioned alongside Primer (donít get me started on lazy gobshite film critics), so Iíll use that as a convenient example. Widely characterised as an Ďemoí (Stupidest. Fucking. Genre. Ever.
) film, and even derided by those who consider themselves not Ďemoí solely because it is an Ďemoí film. Is that not retarded? Is that not just as fuckwitted as shoving Primer in the Ďsci-fi for sci-fi geeksí box?
"Time travelling just to download more porn? Genius!"
You donít need a technical or scientific background to understand this film. I have a pretty good understanding of it, and the only technical thing I know how to do is set things on fire. Yes, chunks of it are grounded in real science, which ensures relatively few gaffes for said experts to chuckle over. Yes, some of it is difficult to follow, but it can be done. The actual process of time travel is explained fairly simply in the film, so all you have to do afterwards is think for a bit, and slowly tease those knotted threads of storyline out. Realisation dawns. And you enjoy it all the more because you worked it out yourself, and you didnít need the solution hastily served up to you on a shiny patronising plate of crappy dialogue five minutes from the end.
This is a great sci-fi film, with no dazzling special effects, no gun battles, no saving the world, and no stupidity. This is, at last, a film that actually explores the possibilties of time travel fully, something I have never, ever seen before. No, not even in Back to the Future. And now, it's here. All you have to do is watch it.
The DVD is excellent value for money. You get two commentaries, one from Carruth, which may help enlighten you if you missed bits or just can't be arsed to work it out yourself. He is by turns funny, self-deprecating and knowledgeable, and it takes some skill and balls to do a commentary all on your own. The other is from Carruth and some of the cast, which turns out to be quite funny. It seems you can have fun doing a low budget film, but for bigger productions a po face is required. A Tartan Film trailer reel and Primer trailer round up the extras.
Here endeth the lesson.