Combustible Celluloid
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With: Shane Carruth, David Sullivan, Casey Gooden, Anand Upadhyaya, Carrie Crawford
Written by: Shane Carruth
Directed by: Shane Carruth
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief language
Running Time: 78
Date: 01/15/2004

Primer (2004)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Time Code

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Brainy, technical, and talky, this low-budget sci-fi movie breaks the rules of storytelling; it's deliberately confusing, but its absolute confidence makes it all the more alluring and fascinating.

In Primer, inventors and entrepreneurs Aaron (Shane Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) working in their garage, and trying to create a new kind of superconductor that doesn't need to be cooled. During testing, a toy placed inside the machine begins to grow a certain kind of mold at an accelerated rate.

The pair calculates that the machine has created a loop in time, and by building a bigger one, they can climb inside and travel back in time one day. They make plans to play the stock market from the day before, while taking great pains to make sure they don't disrupt the space-time continuum. But as the days grow more and more complex, mistakes begin to be made. And then there are the side effects...

Written and directed by Shane Carruth (who also produced, edited, composed the score, and acted), Primer runs a "B"-movie length of 77 minutes, but it's a dense 77 minutes. The dialogue sounds ultra-naturalistic, sounding like engineers and businessmen in meetings, and it's easy to miss something, although not everything spoken is essential, either. It's not a casual movie, and not for everybody, but highly rewarding.

There are no visual effects, no depictions of what it might look like to travel through time. In truth, there's quite a lot of time spent sitting around and waiting. Nevertheless, Carruth builds tingling suspense throughout, mainly because of the way Primer feels absolutely real, as if this stuff could actually happen, and because of the intriguing sense of the unknown.

The organic, edgy sense of science at work — Carruth studied mathematics, rather than filmmaking — make it seem as if this is a movie that needs further study. And indeed, it does hold up to (and demands) multiple viewings, and each viewing brings a startling new revelation to light.

Thank goodness New Line's DVD has finally arrived. Primer is better to watch at home, and better with the subtitles on, so viewers can follow the film's heavy, looping technical talk. Not to mention that this is a genuine cult film that gets better with every viewing. The DVD comes with the intriguing trailer, a very good commentary track by Carruth and a not-so-good one with Carruth and his cast and crew (they insist on telling insider stories and in-jokes). There's also a batch of trailers for other New Line releases. This is a must-have for all sci-fi fans.

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