Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Dec 20, 2004 7:03 am 
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Stunning little garage movie

You know how Blair Witch Project and Night of the Living Dead are scarier and more real because they aren't studio projects? Primer works the same way. It's made so close to the bone it seems like it almost could be real. It makes you realize that expensive special effects impress, but do not convince; that ultimately the best science fiction is about ideas, not gadgetry.

Shane Carruth was a young engineer with no previous movie experience who wrote, directed, costarred, composed the score, and was part of the crew of Primer and made this stunning and unique little movie for $7,000. The "catering," AKA food, was provided by family members of the filmakers. It was shot in Super 16, which is grainy and sometimes looks like it's burnt out from radioactivity.

It's precisely the ordinariness of the people (and the closeness of the actors to their own actual identity: they're smart young engineers tinkering around in a garage) that makes everything seem both extraordinary and strangely, hauntingly real. As a result Primer is in a class by itself and has been heralded as the most original sci-fi movie in years. It also won the Grand Jury Award and the Alfred P. Sloan Award of $20,000 at Sundance this year.

In a perceptive and enthusiastic review David Lim of the Village Voice wrote of the language/writing of Primer "the overlapping dialogue, a rush of lab-speak gobbledy-gook that at times resolves into a a sort of techie poetry, suggests David Foster Wallace rewriting David Mamet." Lim adds that the movie evokes Chris Marker's lovely, haunting classic, La Jetée.

It all happens in a house, a garage, an office, a small warehouse rented space, and other bland, soulless spaces of a suburban mini-industrial Dallas. What we get at first is four young men in white shirts and ties arguing in a kitchen about trying to get funding for a project they are, in fact, carrying out in a garage attached to the house they're talking in. The guys are intense, smart, and ordinary. It's their ordinariness that will continue to convince and haunt us.

Soon there are just two guys, Abe (David Sullivan) and Aaron (Carruth) and their "machine," whose potential value they've no sense of, but which proves to make fungus grow a hundred or a thousand times faster than normal -- and does weird things with a watch. They aren't even using computers: they're working with the basic elements of life, with the stuff that great bio-medical discoveries come from. They steal argon from a solenoid and copper tubing from a fridge and when they suspect the speeding-up effect, and its ability to work on its own once it's started, they take their project to the next level -- excitedly leaving their co-workers behind -- by making a room-sized box in a storage rental space and going inside, experimenting with their own bodies as the guinea pigs.

Yes, they can go forward in time and then go back, but a double is spawned for each of them whenever the machine is utilized -- and that's before we learn about the secret machine one of them has added in another space on his own.

The first sequences work stunningly. They creep up on you, as you strain to make sense of that "lab-speak gobbledy-gook" and feel a sense of growing excitement in spite of yourself just like when maybe as a young person you listened to science-geek friends (I had one who became a famous inventer) tinkering around with dangerously simple-sounding, yet mysterious, ideas. You know that if they're not just making a mess they're onto something big.

Then the confusions get thicker, the doubles multiply, and Primer partly self-destructs because it becomes too hard to follow. Abe and Aaron are working 36-hour days, making money by buying stocks they know will double, but they know what they're doing is dangerous and the results unknown and unknowable; they can't write letters properly, one of them has been bleeding from the ear, and it's all getting terribly out of hand. They're in too deep, they're like addicts in the grip of a terrible and powerful new drug. Frankly by the last twenty minutes we can't follow what's going on any more. The film just implodes rather than ends. But there's no smarter or more original movie made in USA this year. It's a triumph of the little guy, of brains and daring over money.

I was lucky to find this still showing at a theater in New York in December. It's got distribution now, but if that doesn't come your way, when it's on dvd, rent it.


FOOTNOTE 2011; updated 2015:
Metacritic references 25 reviews from the release date here. Rating: 68.
2011: I found some more recent discussion online here. Mike D'Angelo may have been the first to champion Primer, in his original Esquire review, "The Best Movie We've Seen Since Tomorrow." In his severe grading system, he gave it an astronomical 88. This review has now disappeared from the magazine's online file, but D'Angelo published a new AV Club piece on the film in Nov. 2013, "Primer is the most 'realistic' (and complicated) time travel movie."

©Chris Knipp 2004

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