Review (& some Answers!): Primer [2004]

a review by the Crow.

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OPENING THOUGHTS

This crow first watched Primer in 2005 (he thinks; it might’ve been 2006), with no notion of the movie other than that it was a good, mind-benderific SF movie.

So, this crow (living in India at the time), got some takeaway from the local food court (do they still do that lemongrass something-something chicken dish-thingie? Please tell me they do!), got Pickpocket to come sit with him, and proceeded to dive into the movie.

Oh, and by the way, for those of you who remember… yes! Primer has appeared on The Corvid Review before! Click here to read up on this crow’s Top 10 SF movies!

Here… we… go!


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SO WHAT THE HELL IS THIS THING?

WARNING: THIS SECTION CONTAINS SOME [MINOR] SPOILERS

Primer isn’t your traditional movie. It’s a low-budget indie movie which doesn’t follow the typical formula we see so often in movies. Now, while the title of this post speaks of “answers”, this summary won’t actually be delving into the nitty-gritties of the sciencey-wiency stuff involved. However, this crow shall take you under his wing and show you an easier way to answer the questions this movie manages to throw viewers with.

The movie starts off with Abe (David Sullivan) and Aaron (Primer‘s very own auteur Shane Carruth), along with two of their friends, doing what they do best: working on side-projects while struggling with their day jobs to come up with the next big invention. They do this in Aaron’s garage, and keep coming up short.

After some coaxing by one of the two supplemental friends to follow his idea for a device to patent, Abe discovers that the machine they’ve built (apparently meant to be a device to reduce the weight of objects via the use of superconductors) is actually a wondrously exciting time-manipulating device, and he immediately lets Aaron know, at which point the duo decide to cut their two other friends out of the loop.

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The lead up to the reveal of what the “Box” does is handled excellently. For fellow birds and folks who are at the crossroads between engineers, film enthusiasts, and science aficionados, this movie is the pinnacle of storytelling as it refers to us.

While that’s certainly a niche, it comes across to those not at said crossroads, either. Yes, it might come off a bit boring near the beginning, and even some of this crow’s own friends scoffs! have run out of patience with the movie before the two main characters discover the strange growths on the inside of the Box.

But to those of you who’ve not made it to that point, trust this crow when he says that the movie’s been playing with you already. By the time the Box’s main use in the movie comes around, the story’s already gotten interesting. But you just don’t know it yet. And you won’t know, but the movie holds its punches until later on, where it tells you what exactly you should’ve been looking at.

What follows is a story spanning multiple timelines and multiple copies of characters trying to achieve all sorts of goals. The movie excels at tying these branching narratives down to a certain degree, and this is where Primer usually confuddles people’s brains to the point where they turn into this sort of state.

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DESTINY, IS THERE-ONLY-ONE-RIGHT-WAY? 

But! This crow stresses that if you’re trying too hard to follow the timelines Primer presents to you on a first or second watch, you’re losing the battle. Rather (as fun as it might be to figure out where each strand of time goes), follow where the characters are going. Just let the whole time-travel narratives fly past you and listen to the dialogue.

And that’s how you unravel the movie. Otherwise, you’re going to end up with a lot of paper and scribbles on said paper. This is a movie, not a scientific paper.

SPOILER: To anyone who has a hard time getting Inception – a far simpler movie – apply this logic to that film as well and live happy.

That said, the science is handled with respect (what else could one expect from a man with Shane Carruth’s background?), and the dialogue scenes gave this crow many a fond/traumatising flashback to his Uni days.

Overall, the character arcs are satisfyingly written, and the points at which both characters end up make perfect sense. If one watches this movie with patience and a keen ear, its secrets are no problem.


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IF YOU LOOK… YOU WILL SEE

Okay, most people think Primer‘s not the best-looking movie, and this crow sees how that is, but ultimately, it’s not important. Primer isn’t meant to be a visual masterpiece.

The movie delivers a story wrapped tightly in the robes of concept with efficiency, even if that’s not apparent right up front.

The performances fit nicely into the visuals, and the movie almost has a documentary-esque style to it. The technobabble here (where it exists) is the best to be seen, and the camerawork is actually a high-point, considering what the crew had to work with.

Dave and Shane pull off their characters with excellence, and the movie even manages to incorporate a nearly dreamlike style at a few points to better convey what is going on.

An interesting note here is that most people consider Shane’s Aaron to be the main character of the movie. This crow considers both Sullivan’s Abe and Aaron to be the main characters, who fall wonderfully into the archetypical roles of hero and villain.

There are some nice themes running through the movie, subtle as they are. It sets the writer in this crow’s heart aflame. But, this crow shall leave that up to you.

There is a twist at some point in the movie, and the way the movie is edited around it is almost jaw-dropping. A better executed movie on a US$7,000 budget, this crow has never seen.


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CLOSING THOUGHTS

Primer well deserves its high perch on this crow’s Top 10 SF movies list. It is simply amazing, how this could be pulled off on its puny budget. This is what the heights of cinema can be. We don’t need glitzy effects, or over-expensive locations. While those are both nice, Primer demonstrates movie-making at its bare essentials.

It tells its story, is tightly controlled, and has respect for the ideas it presents.

Yes, it’s not pretty. Yes, it’s noisy. Yes, it’s night-time scenes make one squint a little to focus better, but all these things come together in the best way possible by the end.

The final threat/deal is also a masterful moment. This crow cannot lie: it gave him slight chills, despite the nonchalant performance (which possibly made things strike closer to home).

Wonderful movie! Just wonderful!

And don’t worry, this crow shall tackle Upstream Color, soon.

Final rating: 9/10

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