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PRIMER

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Shane Carruth, David Sullivan
Director:  Shane Carruth
Audio:  Dolby Surround
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  New Line
Features:  Two commentary tracks, trailer
Length:  77 Minutes
Release Date:  April 19, 2005

"I haven't eaten since later this afternoon."

Film ***

Time travel movies are often fraught with anomalies, specifically regarding what actually might happen if you go back and make small changes to the events that have led up to the present.  If nothing else, Primer is the first film that pays less heed to the fantasy of going back in time and more to the scientific implications of it.

Written and directed by Shane Carruth for about $7,000 (he also produced, edited and scored), Primer is an imaginative achievement that won the drama prize at Sundance and proved that science fiction doesn't require tons of cash, big sets or elaborate special effects to function.  If anything, the lack of production values helped him focus on his real goal, which was to contemplate the more basic problems that time travel might create.

He stars as Aaron...he and his partner Abe (Sullivan) are tech era entrepreneurs trying to run a business from his garage.  They talk in the kind of scientific blather that would have the Star Trek crew scratching their heads.  We don't seem to fully understand what they're developing, but then again, neither do they.

They are working on a box and don't seem to be too sure what the outcome will be, only that they're on to SOMETHING.  After a few experiments, they figure out their invention causes objects to loop around in time so that hours and days pass for whatever is in the box while only minutes progress on the outside.

A non-intelligent object can't leave the box during the backwards loop into time, but Aaron and Abe can, so they go to work developing a larger version, which they keep in a big storage locker, and try it for themselves.  But right away there are complications...Abe notes for example that if they go back in time a day, they have to spend the current day shut inside a far away motel room, completely cut off from communication, otherwise there would be two sets of them running around at the same time.

The first move is basic enough:  figure out a good increasing stock from today and go back and buy into it the day before.  But events aren't quite so simple...in fact, as we watch the pair, the timeline is already being altered, and we aren't even aware of it at first.  What does it mean, for example, when Aaron starts bleeding from his ear?  Or why does an associate grow a beard in only a few hours' time?  Or what about the temptation of knowing you know more than the other pair of you walking around at the same time?  What happens when your cell phone goes off and a different version of you answers it?

This is a most dangerous form of science being undertaken by two guys who are intelligent but where nobody could really be intelligent enough to handle all the nuances.  The timeline becomes convoluted.  To be honest, I couldn't piece it all together the first time through.  After a second viewing, I marveled at how tight Carruth's writing and directing was, creating an almost circular logic after linear thinking is no longer applicable.

Lovers of independent cinema instinctively understand that millions of dollars doesn't automatically equate to a great film, while a shoestring budget can produce the kind of movie you think and talk about for a long time afterwards.  Primer deals with expansive issues, and a great deal of it was shot in Carruth's garage.  Yet by the time it ends, you feel like you've experienced something that will change the way you think.  Like Darren Aronofsky's breakthrough indie film Pi, this is a picture that didn't need big bucks to express big ideas.

Video ***

Despite the limited funds, or perhaps because of them, I kind of liked the look of Primer.  It's occasionally grainy, as you might expect, but the way Carruth and crew use lighting to suggest science is quite creative.  Everything comes through with enough clarity that you know what you're looking at, except when the perspective is being deliberately distorted for effect.

Audio **

Dialogue comes through clean and clear, and the constant sounds of machinery add a bit of spice to an otherwise level audio track.  Carruth's music is succinct and tasteful throughout, growing more electronic sounding as the story develops.

Features **

There are two commentary tracks, both interesting.  The first by Shane Carruth solo is the more informative and detailed one; the second by him with his cast and crew (on low budget films, many people work both in front of and behind the camera) is also a good listen.  Indie films usually produce the best DVD commentaries because they address how to handle problems and develop ideas when your cash is limited.  There is also an original trailer and some fairly cool menu screens.

Summary:

I can't say that Primer will please all audiences, especially if one's idea of sci-fi encompasses spaceships, lasers, androids and fantastic adventures.  This is a film that create science from fiction, but rather fiction from science.  The more you pay attention, the more you will be rewarded...it's rare to find a film that so thoroughly engages your brain.

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