Thursday, April 18, 2013


It has been nearly a decade since Shane Carruth released Primer, a science-fiction film steeped much more in the science than the fiction.  It has been many years since I first saw Primer, and now that Carruth's sophomore effort, Upstream Color, is making the festival rounds and slowly being released across the country, it felt like a good time to revisit one of the most mind-bending pictures I have ever seen.  Shot on a shoestring budget, Primer is told economically, direct, with very few frills and tension that is made all the more palpable due to its roots in realism.

Trying to explain the layout of Primer is virtually impossible.  The twists and turns and loops and tricks are so plentiful and told with such cryptic sharpness that any linear explanation would drive even the most level-headed person mad.  We open on four friends, all with day jobs in the corporate world, who spend their evenings in a garage working on electronic "error-catching" devices.  These are never really explained fully and they aren't necessary to the plot; these four friends are tech gurus looking to patent a device and make some money to live comfortably.  They hit speed bumps and snags in their research and testing, but they remain steadfast because they know something is just around the corner.

Two of the friends, Aaron (Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) begin brainstorming a new idea one night, a device that will lessen the weight of objects.  A device like this could reduce shipping costs significantly and reduce the overall cost of goods across the world.  Aaron and Abe decide to work on this new creation exclusively and cut out the other two guys.  Before long they have a prototype they test out in the garage.  Abe notices a fungus on the outside of the object they tested in the machine, a small ceramic egg.  The fungus, Abe explains through the help of a lab scientist, would take months to accumulate on this egg; this accumulation took only a few minutes.  Something has been manipulated with time, and a loop of time.  Aaron and Abe have stumbled upon time travel.

Tests turn into larger tests, until a human-sized contraption is built and the two men begin experimenting with traveling into the past.  The discovery of the time-travel device - hidden away in a U-Haul storage building - is told flatly, but is chilling in its directness.  For a while Aaron and Abe use the device to travel back and make a few safe trades on the market and accumulate some easy cash.  But certain scientific hangups begin to cause problems.  There are now doubles of Aaron and Adam looping behind them in time.  What to make of the paradoxical situations that might arise?  Both men begin having trouble writing words out normally.  Then there is a brilliant twist that takes practically the rest of the film to figure out.

Nothing is overloaded with action here, there are no explosions or car chases fantasy devices at play.  And yet, the picture is as thrilling a time-travel film as you will ever see.  But it takes patience.  This has to be the most realistic way for a film to approach time travel, and it had to take a great deal of research and planning.

Primer is brilliant in that it works while you are watching it, but once it is over I defy you to explain everything to anyone without confusing yourself.  And as I mentioned, the economic way in which it unfolds (the run time is under 80 minutes) benefits the strict realism of the story.  That realism makes threats real and tension earned.  Aaron and Abe have lives away from the machine, they have girlfriends and friends and gatherings, but this machine begins to consume them and threaten their friendship.  Even more complications arise when it seems that their funding partner has discovered the machine and used it, though we never quite know how this is possible.  Primer is enigmatic, but at its core remains logical.  Carruth, who wrote, starred, and directed, is a true talent and a masterfully complex storyteller.  I cannot wait to see what he has in store for us with Upstream Color.