By day, a small group of engineers work for a large corporation. By night, they conduct extracurricular experiments in their garage. While tweaking their latest project, they accidentally discover it has highly unexpected capabilities … ones that may enable them to do and gain anything they conceive.
Taking advantage of this opportunity is the first challenge they face. Dealing with the consequences could be their last.
October 8, 2004
By A.O. Scott, The New York Times
Shane Carruth’s “Primer,” a debut feature shot on 16-millimeter for a budget of around $7,000, is an ingenious movie about the perils of ingenuity. Two would-be inventors, Abe and Aaron, working after hours in their suburban garage, stumble onto an invention whose application is not obvious at first but whose ethical and metaphysical implications quickly become enormous. Abe (David Sullivan) describes it to Aaron as “the most important thing that any living organism has ever witnessed,” which may be a slight exaggeration. To call the gizmo a time machine, which it more or less is, would be to create a slightly misleading impression, evoking splashy Hollywood confections like the “Terminator” and “Back to the Future” franchises, which “Primer” does not resemble in the least.
The film is, technically speaking, science fiction, but of an unusually rigorous and unassuming kind. Mr. Carruth, a math major in college who worked as an engineer before teaching himself filmmaking, has an impressive feel for the odd, quiet rhythms of small-scale research and development. His script captures the way these young scientists express themselves and takes note of how their intimate, competitive collaboration works in fits and starts and sideways leaps. “They were meticulous; they were intelligent,” an opening voice-over says, and Mr. Carruth, exhibiting both qualities, assumes that the audience shares them enough to keep up with the intricacies of his narrative and with the logical permutations of his premise. This is a lot to ask — the storytelling is oblique, at times to the point of vagueness — but the effort is invigorating. Like “Pi” or “Memento” (speculative brain teasers to which this has an obvious kinship), “Primer” is the kind of movie likely to inspire both imitators and cultists. I know of one critic who has already seen it at least five times at various festivals, and part of the attraction is the tantalizing belief that if you see it enough, you will finally figure it all out.
I’m not sure of that. Having seen it twice from start to finish and gone back over the videotape in search of clues to its meaning, I wouldn’t say that it entirely makes sense. At a certain point, Mr. Carruth’s fondness for complexity and indirection crosses the line between ambiguity and opacity, but I hasten to add that my bafflement is colored by admiration. Mr. Carruth has the skill, the guile and the seriousness to turn a creaky philosophical gimmick into a dense and troubling moral puzzle.
I don’t want to give too much away — and I certainly don’t want to embarrass myself by getting it wrong — but Abe and Aaron’s attempt to control their experiment starts to go awry. Their ambitions are at first modest and shallow: they will use the time-travel boxes, which produce temporary doubles of the two men, to make money in stock-market day trading. But soon the temptation to mess with the order of things starts to work on them, especially Aaron, or maybe one of his doubles, and the story takes a shadowy, mysterious turn, deftly evoked by dimming lights and eerie music.
“Primer” is likely to turn viewers into versions of Abe and Aaron: it makes you want to sit down and draw charts and propose equations. Whether these will add up to anything more than a cerebral diversion is hard to say. Mr. Carruth has invented something fascinating — a way of capturing, on film, some of the pleasure and peril of scientific inquiry — and you don’t need a time machine to predict that as he goes on, he will discover exciting new ways to put it to use.
Q: How did the idea for this story come to you?
A: “It took about a year to write. I found myself reading a lot of books that had to do with discoveries. Whether it involved the history of the number zero or the invention of the transistor, two things stood out to me. First is that the discovery that turns out to be the most valuable is usually dismissed as a side-effect.
Second is that prototypes almost never include neon lights and chrome. I wanted to see a story play out that was more in line with the way real innovation takes place than I had seen on film before. I knew what I wanted to accomplish thematically well before the plot was devised. I was interested in how trust wears down between people when the stakes are raised and the complexity involved.”
Q: Explain the relationship between Aaron, Abe, Robert and Philip?
A: “Like the majority of people that I know, these are guys that do one thing during the day and in their free time work on what they are passionate about. They have built a small business of selling error-checking devices for computers through mail order. However, they are constantly working on new ideas. They each take turns with a two month period where the group as a whole pursues the individual’s idea. I have always imagined them as little kids in a club and the garage is their fort. They have a logo, a motto (“building the device that’s missing most”) and a set of rules for voting on purchases: Basically everything a six-year-old would think was cool about having his own company. Even the fact that they are constantly wearing ties comes from the image of prep school kids in uniforms that almost never fit their outdoor activities.”
Q: This film is most accurately described as an intellectual thriller. Is it?
A: “I was interested in seeing the process of invention take place on a small, non-professional level and I knew thematically where I needed the story to go so those two things dictated the type of film it would be. It was really just a matter of setting up a premise and following it to a logical conclusion in an interesting way.”
Written Directed and Produced by Shane Carruth
Production Design Shane Carruth
Location Sound Reggie Evans
Camera Operator Anand Upadhyaya, Daniel Bueche
Camera Assistant James Russell
Production Assistant David Sullivan
Sound Designer Shane Carruth
Location Sound Reggie Evans
Re-Recording Mixer David Ho
Craft Services Kathy Carruth, Chip Carruth
Special Thanks Scott Douglass
Aaron Shane Carruth
Abe David Sullivan
Robert Casey Gooden
Phillip Anand Upadhyaya
Kara Carrie Crowford
Metalshop Worker Jay Butler
Man on Couch #1 John Carruth
Man on Couch #2 Juan Tapia
Hostess Ashley Warren
Rachel Granger Samantha Thomson
Thomas Granger Chip Carruth
Laney Delaney Price
Aaron’s Co-Worker Jack Pryland
Clean Room Technician Keith Bradshaw
Laboratory Technician Ashok Upadhyaya
Will Brandon Blagg
Will’s Cousin Jon Cook
Rachel’s Date David Joyner
Translator Eric De Soualhat
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“Riveting. Radically independent.” David Ansen, Newsweek
“Anybody who claims they fully understand what’s going on in ‘Primer’ after seeing it just once is either a savant or a liar. That’s hardly a problem, though, since the experience of watching ‘Primer’ is so intensely pleasurable that you’ll want to see it several times, not so much to figure it out (that’s a fringe benefit) as to revel in its striking composition and wry sense of humor.” Mike D’Angelo, Esquire
“The year’s most effective science fiction film. ‘Primer’ is a reminder that the best sci-fi action requires you to think.” Jason Silverman, Wired
“Finally, a piece of clockwork science fiction that works. This smart, committed genre exercise well deserves its Sundance Grand Jury Prize.” New York Magazine
“One of the more inventive, tantalizing and ingeniously directed indies of the past few years.” John Anderson, Newsday
“Evidence of a unique and unified vision. Every shot has the surprise and intensity of a new idea.” Amy Taubin, Film Comment
2004 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize, U.S. Dramatic Competition
2004 Sundance Film Festival Alfred P. Sloan Film Prize
2004 Nantucket Film Festival Best Writer / Director
2004 Gotham Award Nominee Best Feature
2005 London International Festival of Science Fiction Best Feature
2005 Independent Spirit Award Nominee Best Feature
2005 Independent Spirit Award Nominee Best Director
2005 Independent Spirit Award Nominee Best First-Screenplay
2005 Independent Spirit Award Nominee Best Debut Performance David Sullivan