Primer (2004)


SPOILER ALERT: I strongly advise you watch the film first before reading further.  (It’s on Netflix instant for those who subscribe)

Primer is one of those true indie movies, made for such a ridiculously small amount of money that all that is on display is the quality of the filmmaking and screenwriting.  The man behind it is Shane Carruth, who not only wrote, produced, acted and directed the film but also edited and scored the picture. For a meager $7,000 Shane crafts a simple, mind puzzling, time traveling picture that packs in more depth and geekery in its 77 minute runtime than many a sci-fi picture.

The film follows two buddies who spend their free time working in the garage on various technological products they sell on the side to make ends meet. Aaron (Shane Carruth) and Abe’s (David Sullivan) latest project starts as a solution to cool off overheating computers. But before long the two discover the device doesn’t work as they suspect. For one, it maintains power for several minutes after the power source is disconnected. And an odd film also appears over whatever they place inside the machine. After some detective work and a few tests the results are in, the two have just accidently made a time machine.

time travel primer

I should note up front that this is a very technical film. Shane isn’t afraid to isolate his audience by having the two main characters talk in depth about the various technical elements involved in the time machine the two make. The lingo alone will likely baffle most viewers but even then if you do understand what the two are saying, the train of thought is mind bending. Yet this techno babble makes for a well thought out mythos even if it is confusing.

Contrasting the complexities of the dialogue and science behind it all is the extreme minimalistic approach to the filmmaking. There’s no cinematic hook here, no creative lighting, complex camerawork or intricate setups. Everything is fairly straightforward in its execution. The only real complexities are in how the film uses natural spaces such as doorways and windows to frame the characters. That being said, the film remains fluid in its visual pacing by using a lot of slow, simple pans. One of the major downsides of this simple, cheap approach is there are a lot of under-lit, underexposed interiors. Sometimes it fits the mood, but more often it’s slightly unnatural and off-putting.


And speaking of unnatural and off-putting that describes the depictions of time travel in this film. While most films present a rather sleek and sexy ride through time, Primer gives a much more uncomfortable depiction of time travel. It’s not the kind of thrilling rush most time traveling movies show and it doesn’t have any of those crazy expensive special effects either. On the up side you don’t have to time travel butt naked.

But like most good sci-fi films, where the film gets interesting is when it starts to explore the philosophical and ethical implications. Needless to say like any other human beings the pair seeks uses the device to better their financial lives. At first they just buy stocks they know will make a strong gain that day, spending the day in a hotel room so as not to affect the future they came from. But that can only last for so long, and soon the two are testing the boundaries.


Primer is one of those sci-fi flicks that gets to the heart of what makes the genre great. It fits well among other independent sci-fi films such as Pi and The Man from Earth.  Like those films, it’s more interested in philosophical exploration than awing its audience with realistic looking aliens or massive fighting robots. As the genre has evolved there’s been a split between the film that uses science fiction as a platform for action and that which uses it for philosophical exploration. Primer is a film almost entirely devoid of action, leaving only the meat of science fiction. I’ll admit that this film is confusing and, at times, even incomprehensible to the scientifically neophytes such as myself. Yet that doesn’t stop it from provoking the kind of thoughts and conversations that make up great sci-fi.

© 2009 James Blake Ewing