DIRECTED BY: Shane Carruth

FEATURING: Shane Carruth, David Sullivan

PLOT: Two engineer/entrepreneurs accidentally discover a box that allows time travel, and

Still from Primer (2004)

soon get themselves into trouble.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LISTPrimer‘s baffling story gives you an untethered, free-falling in reality feeling.  But although the dense, complicated, and deliberately obtuse plot produces a level of confusion comparable in effect to the weirdest David Lynch movies, I’ve got the sinking feeling that, if you dissect  it carefully, there’s a perfectly logical explanation for everything that happens.  (That complaint makes the 366 project the only outlet in the world to potentially reject Primer because it makes too much sense).

COMMENTS: If what you most value in a movie is a plot that will inspire you to sit down and create a schematic flowchart—maybe using multiple ink colors to illustrate various contingencies—in order to figure out what’s going on, then have I got a recommendation for you!  Made for an incredible $7,000 on suburban locations with only two major characters and no special effects, Primer relies entirely on it’s smart, knotty script to keep the viewer interested—and succeeds admirably.  After a pre-time travel prologue, joltingly edited and spoken largely in an untranslated engineerese that’s fairly bewildering in itself, Aaron and Abe (A & B?) stumble upon a box that will allow them to travel backwards in time for about a day at a time.  Like any of us would, they initially use the box to play the stock market, investing in the day’s biggest mid-cap mover.  After placing their online orders in the morning, they agree to carefully lock themselves in a hotel room away from the rest of the world so that they won’t accidentally kill their own grandfathers or meet their doubles wandering around on the street.  The plan goes well for a while, but then strange, logic-defying events start happening, and each of the two men wonders if the other is cheating on their agreement, secretly going back a day to change events for personal reasons.  Paranoia mounts as they become suspicious of each other and of reality itself.  That brief synopsis actually makes Primer sound more (initially) coherent than it is; the fact is that only a few very subtle clues are strewn about to explain to us what is actually happening at a given moment, the timeline can’t honestly be tracked on a single viewing (because some scenes replay for a second or third time as time-traveling doubles and triples rewrite events), and Carruth frequently deploys vicious jump-cut editing to further disorient us.  It’s extremely confusing, but that’s the point: when Aaron and Abe begin casually screwing with causality, both they, and we, lose track of what’s going on and which timeline we’re actually in.  At one point, a voice on the soundtrack (making a phone call from some future past) reminds us that “the permutations were endless;” if either of the time trippers are tempted to change the future once, they might change it a thousand times, and even if you trust yourself, can you trust your double?  You can approach Primer in one of two ways: you can look at it as a puzzle to be solved, or you can simply enjoy soaking in the free-floating possibilities of the scenario.  I’m in the second camp: to me there are consequences that are unexplored in the narrative that are as interesting, potentially more so, than the ones that are delineated.   But if you find yourself in the first camp, where your fellow campers huddle about the TV screen watching the movie over and over again with a notepad in hand to transcribe the clues, you should realize that any fan “solution” to the movie is going to necessarily involve some conjecture.  In his director’s commentary, Carruth is candid in saying that he did not want the audience to clearly understand everything that happens, because the characters through whose eyes we experience the story don’t understand everything that is happening to them.  With some time alone with a pen and pencil you can reconstruct most of what happens, but, to my mind, you’d be better off focusing on relishing the possibilities and the “feel” of the story.  To Primer‘s detriment, there is no great emotional core to this highly intellectual story, and there are no wondrous images or masterful scenes for the movie to hang its hat on.  However, considering the budget, Carruth (a former engineer who decided he wanted more from a career and taught himself filmmaking from scratch) does an amazing job of making a professional looking-film.  The cinematography, sound and editing seldom become a distraction by betraying their low-budget origins, and the acting is solid and naturalistic; but, Primer earns its recommended rating entirely on the basis of its clever, novel, and ingenious script.

This Jason Gendler article for Nebula magazine contains a convincing elucidation of the plot (it also uses some technical terms from the field of literary analysis that you may have to look up).  If you enjoy this mini-genre of the time-travel puzzle movie, you’ll want to check out Donnie Darko (of course), Triangle, and Timecrimes as well.


“… Mullholland Dr. for math geeks…”–Aaron Hillis, Premiere Magazine (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Snowcrash,” who advised, “check it out, it is weird.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

6 thoughts on “LIST CANDIDATE: PRIMER (2004)”

  1. Loved the review except for:

    “To Primer‘s detriment, there is no great emotional core to this highly intellectual story…”


    “If you enjoy this mini-genre of the time-travel puzzle movie, you’ll want to check out Donnie Darko (of course), Triangle, and Timecrimes as well.”

    While the former can be described as a difference of opinion (I found the lack of emotional core to be quite an asset: this is a movie about a certain type of person, after all), the second quote troubles me in that the reviewer didn’t mention the grandaddy of them all, Resnais’ “Je T’aime, Je T’aime”. (Speaking of which, I’d like to recommend that for the list if I may.)

    1. I didn’t mention Alain Resnais’ Je T’aime because I wasn’t aware of it at the time. It’s rarely screened and I don’t think it’s ever been released on DVD in the U.S. Feel free to nominate it on the “Suggest a Weird Movie” page if you like.

    2. That certainly makes for a reasonable excuse for not mentioning it. Copies of the movie seem to be nearly impossible to find (despite it being exactly the kind of thing the people at Criterion would love to work with), so I’ve contacted my old college professor whose class brought the movie to my attention. I fear I may have to find myself a laser-disc player to watch it – or otherwise bone up on my French and watch an unofficial download.

      I’ll be sure to pass along a suggestion when I can. Thanks!

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