Film (2004). Produced by Shane Carruth. Directed by Carruth. Written by Carruth. Cast includes Carruth and David Sullivan. 77 minutes. Colour.
Made for a mere $7000 US, Primer was recognized at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival where it won the Grand Jury Prize. This film is an intensely convoluted, intellectually uncompromising analysis of a Time Machine. It is the most sophisticated cinematic work of Hard SF cinema on the subject.
In present day America, two young engineers (Carruth and Sullivan) experimenting with super-conductors in their garage notice that one of their machines is filling with mould at seemingly impossible rates. Further experiments reveal that the interior of the "box" is being sent into short loops through time, so that what seems to be a one minute experiment is being repeated for hours within the box. Building on this breakthrough, the pair construct larger boxes. Once entered, they can take a user back into the past at the same rate that time passes normally on the outside, although the boxes can never return further than the moment that they were initially switched on. At first the two engineers are scrupulously careful with their invention, intending to publish their results after a few tests. They also use it to make money on the stock-market. But repeated use of the machines starts to damage their bodies, while their actions inevitably begin to cause Time Paradoxes and fuel mutual Paranoia. As they begin to lose control of the situation, both men use secret fail-safe boxes that take them back to the first day of Time Travel again. It becomes clear that several scenes have involved future doubles of the characters, rather than their original selves. The Scientists' friendship collapses in mistrust and they part ways; one of the men apparently intending to build a larger version of the boxes overseas.
The cast and crew of Primer are evidently inexperienced, but also talented, and the direction is assured and professional, though the low budget does require a certain visual minimalism. The script eschews cinematic conventions of simplification; the characters speak to each other like professional scientists rather than laymen. While the jargon adds to the perceived impenetrability of the film, it also gives it a feel of documentary realism, as does the relative soundness of the concepts under discussion. However, at times the proceedings seem wilfully opaque, progressively recomplicated to the point of inducing migraine in the viewer, which can make Primer a maddening film to watch, as well as an extremely thought-provoking one. [JN]
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