I’ve read that anyone who can follow everything that goes on in Primer is either a liar or totally insane. Being neither, I wasn’t exactly able to follow everything that happened, maybe not even most of it, but I’d like to think I at least got the gist.
Oddly enough, the film is almost the hardest to follow at the beginning before there’s any heavy duty science going on, however the initial disorientation can be attributed to an acclimatization period where you get used to the pacing of the dialogue and the structure of the narrative. We begin with four guys running some kind of tech startup company out of their garage. They are working on the stringy-est of shoestring budgets and are trying to create some kind of machine that can reduce the weight of an object in order to make it cheaper to ship (very practical – and unintentionally reminiscent of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids). What they instead wind up with turns out to be a time machine. After this startling revelation two of the guys decide to keep the project to themselves and try to figure out what to do with it. At first, they try to use the machine to play the stock market, but eventually the temptation of power of this machine is too much to resist and Aaron, the opportunist, decides to use the machine to tweak events in his favour. Meanwhile, Abe, the idealist, tries to take steps to thwart Aaron’s plan and prevent the machine from ever being made in the first place.
The movie plays out in a very stripped down, realistic fashion, and this can be attributed to the most interesting thing about this film: it was made for $7,000. As far as sets go, they consist of a garage, a nondescript hotel room, a storage facility (where the tent-looking time machine is held), some nondescript office space, and what is likely the director’s house. The cast are all people i’ve never seen before, and despite the heavy science in the movie, there are virtually no “special effects” to speak of (simple camera tricks, but that’s it).
A movie steeped heavily in some kind of theoretical mathematics, written and directed by a mathematician, it is really unlike any film you’ve seen before, except maybe π, and this pedigree lends credence to the sketchy ethics of this film – where the characters might be bright enough to invent and make use of this thing, but lacking in the moral structure to use it wisely. The precautions these guys take to make sure they don’t mess up anything when they get started are impressive – but they follow the protocols out of more a mathematical necessity, rather than because its the “right” thing to do.
Much like any other time travel movie I’ve reviewed (like The Jacket, or 12 Monkeys) the sticking point is whether the story is engrossing enough to distract you from asking questions like “If he’s gone back in time, wouldn’t that mean…?” “Hey, doesn’t that mean that…?” “How could that have happened when the other guy was…?” And this movie manages to accomplish that, mostly through the fact that the sequence of events are very confusing, but everything seems to be matched up with mathematical precision, that if you did manage to understand the time travelling overlaps that happen as the narrative starts to unravel, you’d see that its all neatly packaged in the end.
As a small independent film, it doesn’t get much smaller or more independent. As far as ideas go, it doesn’t get much more creative – both as far as the underlying concept, and the fact that it packs such a big idea into such a small and simple framework.