By Ben Hoffman
A haunting sense of paranoia accompanies the conclusion of Primer, the eerie fulfillment of director/writer/lead actor Shane Carruth’s sagacious take on modern life and science. Carruth, with his background in mathematics and corporate engineering, seems to have filled in all the variables. The movie’s fractals dance is a masterpiece that can communicate a sense of ethics without preaching.
The movie follows the exploits of Abe (David Sullivan) and Aaron (Shane Carruth), corporate engineer zombies by day, garage scientists by night. While working on a device that uses magnetism to decrease weight, Abe and Aaron are surprised to find an unexpected side effect: the field traps its subjects in a recursive loop isolated from the world’s normal timeline. In plain old English: they create a time machine.
While pondering and applying usages for their new machine, the duo realize causality is a harsh mistress. For fear of screwing up the world, they cautiously employ their invention. In this aspect, Primer is nothing like other movies using time-travel as a plot device–most sci-fi takes the idea of time-paradox and bends it to its convenience.
The film’s kinetic cinematography, reportedly costing only $7,000 U.S., reminds us sci-fi doesn’t need a big budget or visuals, merely science. The grainy film stock and underemphasized acting serves to ground the viewers’ perspective while the often-poetic narrative carries the audience through all the tumultuous whorls and eddies expected from a torrential plot. When the plot does get too thick, the small details of the film–the sounds, the setting, the music, the gritty realism–always compel audiences to keep watching.
But the movie’s characters are mesmerizing in their machinations. Despite spitting constant technical jargon, Abe and Aaron never seem abrasive. They are characters you could sit, have a beer with and listen to their explanations of quantum mechanics. At certain points, the down-to-earth characters can make you feel as though you were a part of the charade.
Primer shares a passion for science not often matched in the world of science fiction movies. At the same time, it is more than just a classic time-paradox flick, because the concepts contained in it breach the perimeter of mere science and bring the modern, corporate world into play. The insightful dialogue the movie occasionally offers are gems peppered through the narrative, serving only to drive home its lessons even more.
The bittersweet (and eternally perplexing) end to this movie leaves one with an odd sense of there being more to life than science could ever explain. The paranoia one leaves the theatre with: what if my future self were watching to make sure I don’t screw up? And we all know good sci-fi needs a good “what if.”