I’m not sure what I was expecting when I watched Primer; I’d heard it described as ‘the adult Donnie Darko;’ a moniker very hard-earned, I would say. As such I suppose I was expecting a mind-bending tale of time-travel with a personal undercurrent of the protagonist trying to right his wrongs, overcome his sociopathic nihilism and make sense of his life.
What I got was 80 minutes of bland dialogue, forgettable acting and a plot so obfuscated and nonsensical that it caused me to lose interest in the film entirely. Given the budget on which this film was created ($7000/~£4300) and the quadruple role held by Shane Carruth (writer, director, producer and star,) it’s fairly understandable that Primer is not all it could be.
In the opening scene, we are introduced to Aaron, Abe and their two partners (who are later all-but-abandoned by the story,) working on their home business and discussing their experimental project. The purpose of Primer, in many ways, is to portray time-travel, not in the hi-tech polished steel and plastic realm of Deja Vu or Paycheck, but in an everyday way. Aaron and Abe discover a means of travelling through time entirely by accident whilst working on an unknown project in their garage.
It’s a very refreshing view on the technology, seeing two blokes accidentally send a Weeble forward in time and back in their garage, certainly after years of seeing time-travel occur amidst ultra-hi-tech devices in a white room deep in a US military base (or similar.) I would go so far as to say that this film has the best portrayal of any film I’ve seen recently; accessible, fairly understandable and a decent balance of technology and effect.
Two examples of an imbalance of technology and effect would be Donnie Darko and Deja Vu. Donnie Darko depicts no time-travel
apparatus at all (apart from perhaps the wormhole,) and yet the effects of time-travel are very visible and integral to the plot. Deja Vu, on the other hand, is more spectacle-based; hoards of screens, blue-ish machinery and epilepsy-inducing flashing green lights form a time-viewing/travel machine that doesn’t do much more than just surveillance (at first.) J. J. Abrams’ popular TV series Lost is the perfect balance; the Dharma Initiative having cracked time-travel during the 1980s using rather clandestine and simple-looking technology.
Having said that, every other aspect of Primer is very bland and boring. The acting is quite hard to describe; Carruth obviously intended for the movie to be as close to reality as possible, which it is, provided that you and your friends mumble, frequently interrupt each other and respond with random non-sequiturs. It seems to me that either all the characters are talking over each other, or not talking at all.
This makes the dialogue that much harder to follow; when you’re trying to follow four yuppies who accidentally stumble upon a means altering the laws of causality and quantum physics, badly constructed dialogue that flows like bricks in glue is the least appropriate means of doing so. One saving grace is that there is no real overacting; what’s worse than generally bad acting is bland acting, and what’s worse than that is overly enthusiastic drama students fresh out of acting school expressing their character’s feelings with inhuman vigour.
It is impossible to bond with the characters in Primer, or make any kind of connection with them at all, apart from maybe dislike. Four characters, two of which receive very little screen-time, the other two of which are so boring and devoid of human presence that one can only feel disdain towards them. The standard by which I would gauge a character’s importance is how much I would care if he (or she) died, and how I would feel. For example, if Donkey died at the end of Shrek I would be so inconsolable that I’d be petitioning Eddie Murphy to kill Mike Meyers. Conversely, in the Harry Potter series, the audience is groomed to want Lord Voldermort to die as he is the embodiment of wizarding evil and Harry’s nemesis.
I could watch Abe and Aaron die in fire or some horrific accident associated with their time machine and not care in the slightest. I would like to say that this is because they’re annoying, but it’s not that so much as that I just can’t suspend disbelief long enough to actually see them as people; to me they just seem like actors who can’t act, playing characters who are bland and two-dimensional.
Ordinarily, I would herald subtly in cinema; but the extent to which Primer goes in hiding and suppressing the major plot points is just ludicrous. Several major plot points go by with very little explanation in any way (dialogue, camera etc.) If it weren’t for the telephone narration – which, again, goes with very little explanation, – we’d miss quite a few things that are rather important.
Carruth has stated that he ‘deliberately obfuscated the narrative.’ Again, I would usually applaud this, but in this case it is done to such a heavy extent that I now assume that Carruth simply lacks the ability to write a consistent and coherent plot. As I said, the dialogue and narrative is very dull up until the 50 minute mark, at which it jumps to an insane speed. By 65 minutes, the narrative has taken on such an incredibly nauseating pace that I gave up trying to figure it out. By the end of the movie I had lost interest all together.
It has been said of Primer, ‘anybody who claims he fully understands what’s going on in Primer after seeing it just once is either a savant or a liar.’ I would include this addendum: ‘anybody who tries to understand it will be sadly disappointed.’ People seem to assume that there’s some deep meaning to Primer; some masked truths laid down by a genius awaiting discovery. There are none.
Primer boils down to an under-funded movie based on a rickety amount of skill and created with the intention of capitalising on the booming 2000s Indie movie scene. If Primer is indeed the ‘best Indie movie ever made,’ as it has so been dubbed, then I would gladly go back to modern mainstream cinema. Mercifully, it is not, so I don’t have to.
Giving Primer a generous 4 out of 10.