I once read in OMNI Magazine that the first lasers were measured in “Gillettes”. A laser beam that could punch through a single Gillette razor blade in one second was a one-Gillette razor; a beam that could burn through two in one second was a two-Gillette razor; and so on. Think about it: The guys who came up with what became one of the most versatile innovations of the technological age at first had no real idea what to do with it, so they pointed it at razor blades and burned holes in them.
Primer is about the same sort of impulse: Two brainy guys invent something really astonishing in their garage, have no real idea how it works, and before they’ve even shown it to anyone or understood the principles behind it, they’re using it to milk millions out of the stock market. Aaron (Shane Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) have day jobs working for big companies, but at night they hobnob over circuit boards and signal testers, and dream of scraping together serious venture capital to work on something a little more ambitious than just homebrew plug-in cards for PCs. They’ve been working on simplifying an existing design to perform room-temperature superconductive levitation, or something.
Then one day they discover something very odd about the machine they’ve been cobbling together. Things they put into it acquire a patina of age. Watches run backwards. Without quite realizing how, or even to what end, they have built a time machine. This is where the movie’s storytelling becomes truly masterful, as one of the two takes the other through his steps (a process that will be repeated later, thematically as well as literally) to force the magnitude of the discovery on him. Maybe they can build a bigger one, big enough even for a … a man to fit inside. And as they say this, they see what appears to be one of them go into a rental storage unit—where there sits, yes, a man-sized version of the machine, built exactly as they imagined it might need to be.
Who built it? How? The movie forges ahead, as do they. By going into the box, they reason, and going back in time, they run the risk of bumping into themselves and wreaking who knows what kind of causal havoc, or “breaking symmetry” as one of them calls it. To fend this off they devise an elaborate protocol for avoiding their duplicates, which involves spending hours on end inside the machine huffing oxygen from a cylinder. When they emerge, the first thing they do is go look for a good stock pick, and in a matter of days have amassed millions. With that, they figure, they can fund any number of projects, build any number of other machines, and…
And as you might expect, with any good story about time-travel, there comes a moment when we realized we’ve been dropped into the rabbit hole. A little past the halfway mark in the movie, there are a series of surprises—but on closer examination, they are not so much surprises as they are logical extensions of the chronological mayhem that’s already taken place. We learn of doubles of doubles, of even more machines, some of which can be transported back inside other machines, of agendas on both sides that encompass everything we’ve seen, of much more. There is also the psychological dimension behind it all, wherein the characters are confronted with the possibility that they can, indeed, get absolutely anything they want with a little work. And then what?
I love when a good movie has an even better story behind it. Primer was a completely-from-scratch project by first-time director Shane Carruth, who also starred, edited, wrote the script and composed the spare Brian Eno-esque score. His mother catered the production, friends and family were the crew and helped with completion funds, and the whole thing came to a mere $7,000 or so. What’s most starting is that this does not for a second look like anything except a slick, professional production: the colors are lovely and saturated, the shots elegantly framed, the sound well-layered. If this is what $7,000 can buy in moviemaking, I’m wondering where the $125 million for many other movies disappears into.
Don’t expect the film to provide a detailed explanation of time travel. The technical details are besides the point, and indeed most of the dialogue in the movie is delivered in a rush, excited monotone with overlapping sentences and words blurring into each other. The camera lurks behind furniture and peeps through windows; shots are almost never framed head-on. We’re not passive observers in this movie, but active participants: the heroes end up eavesdropping on themselves, and we are in turn eavesdropping on them. It’s perversely fascinating. I am also reminded of Donnie Darko, another cult favorite where time travel was actually only one element in a more complicated story. Primer is more compact and concise, and in my mind does far more in its 78 minutes than most movies come close to in two hours.
In his heyday, Robert Heinlein wrote two stories about time travel that more or less singlehandedly exhausted the genre: “By His Bootstraps” and “All You Zombies—”, in which one person goes through time and encounters himself in multiple permutations. Primer may be the first story in this genre that actually goes somewhere new with the idea, and leaves more of an impact than “Gee, neat trick.”