Primer – film review (C++)


(The C++ is a joke for the computer crowd)

It’s probably unfair to review Primer, an independent sci-fi time travel film, in the same way as other films.  For one, its budget was $7,000.  Yeah, only three zeroes.  One person, Shane Carruth, is listed as writer, director, actor, editor, and music composer.  He had to be tired, and he probably needed time travel just to get the thing done.  On the upside, Primer won the Audience Award for Best Drama at Sundance in 2004.  On the downside, I had to watch it twice to even come close to understanding what appeared to be happening.

It opens in a kitchen, not fancy, where techno-geeks Aaron (Carruth), Abe (David Sullivan), Robert (Casey Gooden), and Phillip (Anand Upadhyaya) are mass mailing various investors hoping to earn grants for their whatever-it-is that’s out in the garage and made of tubes and wires and shiny things.  There’s a schematic of it on the wall, but we never know exactly what it is nor its intended purpose, but we don’t really need to know.  It’s MacGuffinesque, and that’s mostly okay.


After a few failed experiments, they notice some kind of gunk that has accumulated.  Tests show it’s a type of protein that normally takes an indefinite but incredibly long time to amass, yet it somehow has done so in only seconds.  That’s their clue that this machine is playing with time.  Robert, after some modifications, including a better metal casing, inserts a watch.  After it comes back out, we learn that the machine can transform one minute into 22 hours and 45 minutes.  Which direction is not mentioned, but that’s figured out later.  What’s also figured out later is why Aaron and Robert are constantly wearing earpieces much like Secret Service agents.

Once there seems to be promise for whatever this machine is, one of the first moves is for Aaron and Abe to cut loose Robert and Phillip.  But they’re not completely selfish because they’re willing to leave them any patent rights – which means they see more potential in their immediate use instead of any long-term profit.  That’s either really good or really bad.  They they start talking about Caribbean Islands, yachts, and other things.  So I guess good, right?  Like the old saying goes, “It’s all fun and games until someone puts an eye out.”  Or in this case, and ear.

Primer banks on the idea that what you don’t know you can fill in for yourself.  It’s minimalist and assumes that you’ve seen enough time travel films that you don’t need to know the guts, the reasons, or the physics.  It also knows that if anyone actually built such a device, the first thing they’d do is figure out how to make money with it.  However, like with most time travel situation, they elements governing everything usually find a way to make mincemeat out of the money seekers before they can cash in.  Not saying that’s what happens here, but there has to be some kind of resistance or it would just be Doc Brown and Marty McFly with pockets full of cash.

Neither Carruth (Primer, Upstream Color), a former software engineer, nor Sullivan (Argo, The Astronaut Farmer) acts very well or poorly enough to make a difference.  They keep it on the conservative side, but I think we’d all be rather reserved while waiting to see what would really happen and if what we think is happening is happening.  There’s a grainy quality to most of the film.  Whether that’s because of the budget or to give it sort of a surveillance feel isn’t certain.  However, there is an occasional – and annoying narration from someone who seems to have inside knowledge of what’s happening.  I say annoying because the voice never tells us enough.  However, without the voice, we would know even less, and that includes me watching it twice.


The story eventually gets a little off track because it’s not certain which track it’s on.  There’s a shooting, or an attempted shooting, and an attempted back-in-time intervention.  There are people following each other who seem to be the same people, but it’s not clear who is following whom or who is the real whom.

For only $7,000, Primer is an excellent student/independent film, but let’s judge it in that price range.  Had this been a feature film, then the expectations would have been far greater.  I likely would have enjoyed it more, not relatively speaking, were I not so semi-obsessive about time travel films.  If the device or the principles behind the travel are not acceptably logical (as if time travel can be logical), then I’m not buying into it.  If you’ve read 11/22/63 by Stephen King, you’ve seen likely the worst device in print.  You walk into a pantry, close the door, pretend to walk, and then suddenly you’re in an alley about 50 years prior?  Really?  C’mon, man, that’s mailing it on.  King, of all people, should have done much better.

Comparing devices alone, Carruth far out-thought King.  But he’s got a long way to go before out-thinking Doc Brown.

Teacher gives it a C+

8 thoughts on “Primer – film review (C++)

  1. Ahh, you got it! I’ve been keeping a look out for whether a review of it would pop up here. It is a little confusing in places isn’t it. I quite like the charm of a low budget film at times, and in the case of this one, I felt it added a certain realism to it, like they were recording their exploits on a camcorder. But yes, it can’t be judged against the big budget features. I think they did a good job with what they had, even if I couldn’t follow what was happening half the time!

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