In 10 Words or Less
When you can have it all, where do you stop?
There's a distinctly-unique genre of films that aims to mess with the audience's mind, putting them in the same shoes as the film's characters. One of the best examples in recent years is Memento, the non-linear masterpiece that parceled out clues to a mystery in the same manner that its memory-addled star would experience them. If there's one way to confuse people, it's messing with their sense of time.
Thus, Primer picked the perfect tool for creating confusion. As Abe and Aaron, two young engineers, attempt to battle the forces of gravity, they accidentally crack the secret to time travel. The technological implications are interesting enough to them, but the financial (and other) opportunities available are a powerful draw as well.
As they test the machine, and struggle to figure out practical applications (they are engineers, after all), complications in the stream of time crop up that begin to work against them. The story is quite complicated, as the boys go back in time several times, a move that any fan of time travel stories can tell you is a guaranteed mistake. Ripples of time, or paradoxes, are powerful forces, which are not to be trifled with, as they never can be undone easily.
While focusing on such a sci-fi/fantasy idea could have sucked the connection the audience feels right out of the film (as happens so often in this genre), the story doesn't ignore the characters' humanity, which is truthfully the story's motivation. Ideas of greed, love, loneliness and trust are front and center, acting as the fuel in the film's engine. This is no fanboy geek-out. It's as thought-out a human drama as we have seen in recent time, wrapped in the mind-twisting concepts of time travel.
Shane Carruth, a former engineer, wrote, directed, edited, scored and starred in the film, giving it the kind of singular vision it needed to succeed at this kind of storytelling. The majority of the cast worked as crew as well, helping to solidify the all-for-one feel. Shooting the film on no real budget, he was still able to create a good looking film, one hindered only by the most concrete of details (stock, camera, lighting, etc.) His innate sense of style and ability with the computerized aspects of filmmaking, combined with truly imaginative creativity to make a film that tells an engrossing and entertaining story that doesn't go for the easy answer. This is the definition of great independent filmmaking.
New Line is releasing Primer on one DVD, in a standard keepcase. The anamorphic widescreen menus are all animated, with extensive transitions, sporting an industrial casing theme that doesn't quite fit with the low-budget look of the movie. Options available include Play, Audio Set-Up, Scene Selections and Special Features. The audio options are English and Spanish subtitles, while the scene selection menu features video previews and titles for each scene.
Primer was shot in a very low-budget style, which means Super 16mm film, natural light and a lot of grain. The movie doesn't look polished, especially during darker scenes. Depending on your tastes, this can be very frustrating or no big deal. The film is presented in anamorphic widescreen, and has just a minor amount of dirt and damage; which isn't half bad considering the budget.
The audio, a Dolby 2.0 track, is troublesome, in that the sound isn't consistent, and some dialogue is simply inaudible. The director has admitted to being bad with sound, and he isn't kidding. It is advisable to keep the subtitles on throughout the film. The sound effects are good, as is the music, which help build the film's atmosphere, so there's some good in the audio.
There are only two main extras on this release, but they are both deep in terms of content. Two feature-length audio commentaries are included, one from Carruth and one with Carruth and members of his cast and crew. The tracks follow the standard multi-track style of commentary, as the solo focuses on the actual production of the film, talking about how scenes were shot and the writing of the story. There are some unanswered questions from the film addressed in this track, but for the most part, this is a filmmaker's theory and practice commentary. Carruth keeps things moving and doesn't get bogged down by the details, displaying a sense of humor.
The second track is more fun, featuring Carruth, actor/cinematographer Anand Upadhyaya, soundman Reggie Evans, actor/PA David Sullivan, actor/caterer Chip Carruth and camera operator Danny Bueche. This is more of a reunion/remembrance track, but there's still a good amount of info about the film, even if some of it is repeated from Carruth's track. Also found on this disc is Primer's trailer, which was spectacular in terms of mood and in building interest in the film, along with several other New Line previews.
The Bottom Line
Primer demands at least two viewings if you intend to understand the story, but if you just want to get your mind warped, one should do it, as the ideas about time travel, though not new, are handled in a way that is fresh and interesting. Add in the film's charm as a zero-budget film done good, and there's plenty of audience for the film. The DVD includes a couple of good commentary tracks, which are certainly of use to anyone into the film. If you like sci-fi stories with real brains and humanity and without in-your-face special effects, Primer might be right up your alley.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.