Primer (2004)

An antecedent to the likes of ‘Tenet‘, this low-budget cult sci-fi sensation about two engineers who discover that they can manipulate time feels so raw and indecipherable that it could just be paralyzingly real.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Review #2,574

Dir. Shane Carruth
2004 | USA | Drama/Sci-Fi/Thriller | 77 min | 1.85:1 | English & French
PG (passed clean) for brief language

Cast: Shane Carruth David Sullivan Casey Gooden
Plot: Abe and Aaron are two young engineers who work in an anonymous city for a large corporation and who, in their spare time, conduct their own scientific experiments in their garage. While working on a new device, the two discover an extraordinary side-effect that allows them to manipulate time.
Awards: Won Grand Jury Prize – Dramatic (Sundance)
International Sales: Visit Films

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – Manipulation of Time; Existential Conundrum
Narrative Style: Complex
Pace: Normal
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse

Viewed: MUBI
Spoilers: No

Shane Carruth burst into the spotlight with Primer, now considered a cult indie sci-fi from the 2000s that showed the world that all you need is a brilliant idea to make a film that people still continue to unpack nearly two decades on. 

A mathematician by training and a software engineer by trade, Carruth’s foray into filmmaking was marked by a minuscule budget (only US7,000 to be exact), bare-bones sets and plenty of DIY directing and post-production over a number of years. 

He even stars as Aaron, who with Abe, both engineers, discover that they can manipulate time after building an experimental ‘time travel’ machine during their free time. 

Shot in 16mm, Primer is the 21st-century antecedent to the likes of Looper (2012) and Tenet (2020), but unlike these films or even something like Back to the Future (1985), all of what happens in Carruth’s work seems like it could happen in real life. 

“We know everything, okay? We’re prescient.”

This is probably due to how it was shot—the film has a raw, rough-hewn style, and zero reliance on CG effects.  As such, I would describe watching Primer as a paralyzing experience inasmuch as it expresses an eerie sense of day-to-day realism that forces viewers to question their own current reality. 

It wouldn’t be a stretch to describe it as neorealist sci-fi, even though that is oxymoronic to begin with.  Part of the paralysis also comes from its plotting, which is indecipherable at best.  It is a good kind of confusion though, even as mathematical and scientific jargon fly over most viewers’ heads. 

The inherent existential risks of ‘time travel’ to the corporeal body are tackled and theorised.  In just less than 80 minutes, Carruth shows us the implications of going against the grain.

Grade: B+



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