Four aspirational engineers conduct physics experiments in a garage in their spare time. Two of them discover a process that enables them to travel back in time several hours. They keep quiet about their discovery and use it to succeed in sports betting and the stock markets, but in the grand tradition of all time-travel films their temporal fiddling leads to bad consequences...
Primer is a very curious film, and I don't say that lightly. Because it deals with time-travel it should be labelled a science fiction film but if so, then it's the most minimalist sci-fi film you could think of. It's a million miles away from a Hollywood sci-fi thriller that's for sure. The writer/director and lead actor Shane Carruth shot it with a tiny budget using his friends and family as cast and crew, and despite it's lofty concept it's closer to a dogme film than anything else with it's unpolished feel, minimal lighting and use of amateur actors. Sometimes the scenes look tightly scripted and other times very sketchy with the acting improvised, but it all works together as a whole. Carruth weaves a cautionary tale about powerful technology and the ethics of use. It's a very puzzling and, at times, exasperating film, both in a good way and a bad way. It takes a while to get going but ultimately turns into a rewarding and engaging viewing experience. The film begins with four characters that meet up at one guy's house after work to discuss ideas and concepts. There's very little warmth or humour in their interaction although you presume the four are friends. It's a bit hard going as you find it hard to connect with any of them as they seem to have little personality and are rather dull. For the first twenty minutes the four leads talk in technical jargon with very little 'human' dialogue and you literally have no idea what they're talking about. They all have a similar manner and seem to permanently wear a collar and tie. Even when the main story is underway the dialogue is usually of a scientific bent and the characters seem very emotionless. However, this lack of emotion is relevant to the story, painting a picture of brilliant minds that have little room for human foibles. They're identikit brainiacs. Two of them begin building a box-like machine seemingly out of sheet metal, fridge parts and catalytic converters but we don't know what it does yet. Finally we understand that these two have made a breakthrough on their own that ultimately leads to time-travel. Their machine can 'degrade' time so anything placed inside can gain or lose six hours. Their discovery is too dangerous to market but they decide to utilise the tecchnology for their own gain. Up until this point the story telling has been linear but then we subtly notice that the voice over is not corresponding with what is happening onscreen. From this point on you're in head scratching territory, constantly shifting backwards and forwards in time, so you, the viewer, are always looking for visual clues like stubble growth to see where you stand - just like the two protagonists when things go pear-shaped. The two men, Aaron (Shane Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) at first are very careful as they slip back in time to place bets on sports games and invest before returning to the present to reap the reward. They are aware that anything they do in the past may alter the present that they have just left, and take precautions not to meddle with events. Everything is hunky dory until they inevitably slip up and then everything starts to unravel as they strive to repair the escalating damage they've done to their lives. The plot may be similar to other time-travel films but the execution is not. It's all told in a matter-of-fact manner that works very well, negating the need for special effects or lavish sets. With such a miniscule budget no doubt these things would have looked cheesy and awful anyway. No, Carruth takes another route where the washed out, grainy photography and the tiny cast lend it all a realistic feel more like a documentary. With the dispassionate voice over and endless shots of two white collar men meeting furtively in hotels and car parks it's like a dramatic reconstruction of a conspiracy theory. Primer has an atmosphere that makes the pseudo-scientific events seem plausible and the use of music and skewed compositions give it a tense, uneasy feel. In some ways it's not a visually stylish film, containing many long takes with static camera shots and drawn out dialogue scenes that make it slow at times, but this does give it a cold, emotionless feel that fits very well with the storyline. It's a nifty and thought provoking piece of work, but for some the film will be too obtuse and the distinct lack of emotional resonance, although perhaps necessary, may affect how much you enjoy it.