I was intrigued about Primer because I had been told it was classy, smart sci-fi that’s so often missing in today’s entertainment line-up (see: Sci-Fi channel’s Mansquito). It won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival and the critical reviews had been generally very positive. So my expectations were high for a well wrought, high brow film analyzing time travel. What I got was one long, pretentious, incomprehensible, poorly paced and shot techno lecture. Oh it got bad. Oh did it get bad.
Aaron (Shane Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) run a team of inventors out of their garage. Their newest invention seems promising but they’re still confused about what it does. Aaron and Abe’s more commercially minded partners want to patent it and sell it. Aaron and Abe inspect their invention further and discover it has the ability to distort time. They invent larger versions and time travel themselves and thus create all kinds of paradoxes and loops and confusion for themselves and a viewing audience.
Watching Primer is like reading an instruction manual. The movie is practically crushed to death by techno terminology and all kinds of geek speak. The only people that will be able to follow along are those well-versed in quantum physics and engineering. Indeed, Primer has been called an attempt to make a “realistic time-travel movie,” which means no cars that can go 88 miles per hour. That’s fine and dandy but it makes for one awfully boring movie.
Primer would rather confound an audience than entertain them. There is a distinct difference between being complicated and being hard to follow. You’d need a couple volumes of Cliff Notes just to follow along Primer‘s talky and convoluted plot. I was so monumentally bored by Primer that I had to eject the DVD after 30 minutes. I have never in my life started a film at home and then turned it off, especially one I paid good money to rent, but after so many minutes of watching people talk above my head in a different language (techno jargon) I had reached my breaking point. Primer will frustrate most viewers because most will not be able to follow what is going on, and a normal human being can reasonably only sit for so long in the dark.
I did restart Primer and watched it to its completion, a scant 75 minutes long. The last 20 minutes is easier to grasp because it does finally deal with time travel and re-staging events. It’s a very long time to get to anything comprehensible. I probably should watch Primer again in all fairness but I have the suspicion that if I did my body would completely shut down on me in defense. Some people will love this and call it visionary, but those will be a very select group. It’s not just that Primer is incomprehensible but the film is also horrifically paced. When you don’t know what’s being said and what’s going on then scenes tend to drag because there is no connection. This movie is soooooo slow and it’s made all the worse by characters that are merely figureheads, dialogue that’s confusing and wooden, and a story that would rather spew ideas than a plot.
Writer/director/star Shane Carruth seems to have high ambitions but he has no empathy for an audience. Films can be dense and thought-provoking but they need to be accessible. Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko is a sci-fi mind bender but it’s also an accessible, relatable, enjoyable movie that’s become a cult favorite. Carruth also seems to think that shooting half the movie out of focus is a good idea.
I’m not against a smart movie, nor am I against science fiction that attempts to explore profound concepts and ideals. What I am against, however, is wasting my time with a tech lecture disguised as quality entertainment. Primer is obtuse, slow, convoluted, frustrating and pretentiously impenetrable. After finally finishing Primer I scanned the DVD spine and noticed it said, “Thriller.” I laughed so hard I almost fell over. The only way Primer could be a thriller is because you’ll be racing the clock for it to finish.
Nate’s Grade: C-