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So I’m kind of cheating this week. The unspoken basic premise of the Giant Freakin’ Queue is that the films I’m watching are there because I haven’t seen them before, or in many years at least. But somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew it wouldn’t take long for me to bring Shane Carruth’s 2004 head-scratcher Primer into it, because it sinfully still goes unknown in certain circles, and I don’t think that should happen anymore.
The story behind Primer is as nifty as the film itself, only costing a reported $7,000 and filmed on weekends. Carruth wrote, directed, edited, and wrote the score. It won the Grand Jury Prize and the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize at Sundance, and Carruth was set to take on the world. But the next film he directed, Upstream Color, only hit theaters, VOD, DVD, and Blu-ray in the last month. That’s all interesting, but it doesn’t involve the narrative, and nobody gives a shit about the background story of a shitty movie.
Here’s the deal with Primer. A completely fantastical idea, time travel, enters into the everyday world of two engineers, who then get themselves into a complex — though still quite simple, all things considered — web of details that unravels their lives in a way that has very rarely been put to screen before. The proper release of this film would be a back-to-back viewing of the same film, and with a 77-minute runtime, it’t not as if a lot of time would be wasted. And it’s all about time.
Primer doesn’t talk down to its viewers, or up to its viewers. Carruth plays Aaron, who partners with Abe (David Sullivan), Robert (Casey Gooden), and Phillip (Anand Upadhyaya) for a side project of selling JTAG cards. Since it doesn’t matter what those are, Aaron and Abe create a device that seems to run without power, yadda yadda yadda, and allows a very specific brand of time travel. The very specificity and narrative P.O.V. that viewers are given makes this film as much of a thriller mystery as a sci-fi drama. The characters’ dialogue is never of the “Hey, how’s your day going?” variety; it unloads a lot of detailed information behind the ideas that the beyond-his-years Carruth is giving. And while you don’t really need to understand every single thing that’s being discussed to follow what’s happening, this film is layered like an onion, both in the story direction. The juxtaposition is behind what we are seeing and hearing, and then what we finally come to understand about what we are seeing and hearing. Nothing is there by accident. Accidents aren’t accidents. Roses aren’t roses.
As with the brainiest of science fiction, Primer is best seen knowing very little, and some might say I’ve already given away too much. But spoilers that would cripple other films only give away a few things here. I could theoretically tell you that Aaron [removed], which means that whenever Abe [removed] with the [seriously?], Aaron turned into a robot. Nah, that doesn’t happen, maybe. I’ll need to watch it for a twelfth time to really pick up on it.
Because Netflix has the little preview box above the time-marker when you move it, I passed through the entire film that way and wasn’t quite shocked to see just how slight the changes were overall. With the focus on Aaron and Abe’s characters within a limited range of locations, the only aesthetic differences seem to be the camera placement and color palette, since there are no big action sequences or explosions or CGI or anything like that. This places all the emphasis on the story, and goddammit, it’s a strong one, and it uses every trick within its limited production. Carruth’s electronic score carries the tone in a non-obvious way. A sentence is uttered that shifts how you’re viewing the conversation, you feel a tightening in your gut, and then you realize you’ve been holding it as long as the ambient note in the background. And by you, I mean me.
I’ve never been paid to write about this film, which I obviously love quite a bit, so I guess I can give the film a few subjective jabs. The characters are plot-driven and aren’t necessarily fully fleshed out, although back-stories are built into the plot, so character histories aren’t needed in such a short run-time. That’s a backhanded compliment more than a negative criticism. With such a big idea at its core, the stakes are kept pretty low, and it’s possible not enough attention was given to certain aspects. But its independent creation explains both of those things away.
Multiple viewings do not take away from the film’s successful pacing, the depth of the film’s events. and the angles of interpretation that new viewers will definitely want to voice. I end up forgetting a lot of the movies I watch, even some that I like, because they don’t provoke further introspection once they’ve been seen. Primer invites even the wackiest of conspiracy theorists to give their thoughts. If you’ve never heard of it, or if you’ve never thought it was worth the time, I implore you to watch it and you’ll thank me for it. I think my ear is bleeding.
See Primer if you like: making the writer of this article happy; films whose complexities are worth their run-time in post-viewing conversation; saying, “Oh shit!” “Ohhh!” and “Uh uh!” during what are ostensibly mundane moments; movies with boxes and storage buildings as uncredited actors; really, really great sci-fi.
Don’t see this movie if you like: getting completely hammered before watching every movie.
Thanks for reading, guys! Check back next weekend for another new look at another non-new film. And read all of my Giant Freakin’ Queue Reviews here, should you so desire.