The Lasting Appeal of Primer

In 2004 a zero-budget sci-fi film called Primer premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. It was written, produced, directed, edited, shot by and starred one man: Shane Carruth. It was about two white collar workers who accidentally invent a time machine and deal with the mind-bogglingly paradoxical ramifications it causes. The film was a cerebral sensation and won the Grand Jury Prize that year. Carruth was the buzz of Hollywood. He took meetings with execs and tried to pitch various projects, but ultimately nothing came of it. Everyone admitted Carruth was smart and talented, but he wasn’t commercial.

After abandoning Hollywood, Carruth spent most of his time prepping a childhood fantasy epic called A Topiary, which apparently was too original to get any funding. Most people began to forget about Carruth until this past fall when it was dropped that Carruth’s latest follow-up Upstream Color was to premiere at Sundance.

Now that Carruth’s follow-up Upstream Color has been released in theatres (we’re working on a Three Brothers roundtable to cover it), I felt it was time to look back at Primer and explore what makes it such a compelling piece of fiction.

Nine years after its premiere, it’s impressive just how established Primer is as a cult classic. People are obsessed with this movie, myself included. Part of the appeal is its ultra-low budget, rumoured at $7000. Carruth did just one take for each of the shots because he couldn’t afford extra film (he shot on 16mm) and he overlaid sound for many scenes. Some of this shows in the final cut.

The sound isn’t always synced with the picture, some of the dialogue is muddled, there are focus buzzes, not every single shot is perfectly framed, and the performances aren’t flawless (David Sullivan is noticeably weaker as best-friend/partner Abe than Carruth is as the willy Aaron). This stops the film from being a masterpiece. Anything this low-budget and this do-it-yourself can’t really reach the level of masterpiece because the person making the film is so obviously not a master (hence their doing it all themselves), no matter how much of a genius they are, like Carruth.

Most of the film’s appeal has to be its puzzle-like narrative. Even after three viewings and plenty of online reading, I still haven’t unlocked all the pieces of what actually transpires onscreen. Which Aaron came first? How did Aaron know that the machine could be taken back through the failsafe and duplicated? What actually happened at the party Abe and Aaron are so keen about influencing? In Primer key moments happen on the peripheries or offscreen entirely, with only Aaron’s voiceover narration cueing us into the fact that they happened at all.

Intuitively, this should be frustrating for an audience, and initially it is. You’re baffled and scratch your head wondering what’s all happening in front of you. But then the film lingers in your mind and you can’t help but become engrossed. You start to read timelines online and talk the film over with like-minded friends. The film provokes discussion like few others. The ultimate result is that Primer’s complexity and inscrutability become tantalizing.

People are fascinated by puzzles, and there’s no better way to ensure that the puzzle will always remain fascinating than by making it unsolvable. Think of the greatest mathematical problems like Fermat’s Last Theorem that were meant to be unsolvable and took hundreds of years for scientists to prove. Carruth, himself a mathematics major, has made a great mathematical problem of a film. Carruth has the solution, the proof, and we’ll probably spend the next hundred years trying to solve it ourselves.

Carruth isn’t Christopher Nolan in how he makes puzzle films. Nolan’s films are like magic tricks, with the solution hidden within its components. Carruth has the solution himself—he always insists in interviews that the solution exists and that online fan communities are impressively close to solving it—but it would diminish the film for him to release it.

Most of the flak directed at Primer has focused on how cold it is, how emotionless. At the centre of the film is the partnership between Abe and Aaron, and how their relationship fractures when they disagree over the machine’s use. This is potentially emotional material but Carruth isn’t interested in the emotions behind it. So much of the big moments between Abe and Aaron are glossed over, or summed up in a line. That being the case, what is the arc of the film? What is the story?

The story is about the fragmentation of reality and time. Almost every movie that involves time travel uses it as a convenient and imaginative narrative conceit. I love Back to the Future and The Terminator—more than I love Primer—but neither of those films are interested in actually exploring the paradoxes of time travel. They use time travel to explore something else: Back to the Future uses time travel as a metaphor for coming to terms with the fact that your parents had lives of their own before you ever existed, and The Terminator uses time travel as a means to explore star-crossed lovers destined to be together. Primer, on the other hand, is actually interested in how people would be affected if time travel actually existed.

Abe and Aaron use time travel to do mundane things—buy up stocks in small winning markets, goof off in hotel rooms, fix the events of a party to satisfy Abe’s masculine ego. They’re not geniuses. They’re in woefully over their heads.

The more Abe and Aaron mess with the timelines, the more reality is changed, altered. From the moment they use the machine to unstick themselves in time, reality is permanently destroyed. Midway through the film one of the characters mentions that he’s hungry and hasn’t eaten anything since later that afternoon. This gives a picture of just how distorted their view of time becomes. They can’t be sure of how everything they’ve done adds up or what actually occurred in the proper timeline as opposed to one of their superseded timelines. Primer’s form reflects its content, which is partially what makes it such an impressive film. To think that one man with no formal filmmaking experience could make such an accomplished film on such a non-existent budget is mindboggling.

Primer is a film meant to be endlessly puzzled over, endlessly experienced. The pieces Carruth offers always remain the same, but the sense we make of it, our ordering of the timelines, and the feelings we experience change each time we watch it.

Primer is a jigsaw puzzle without all the pieces. And it’s a puzzle not meant to be solved.

Primer (2004/USA)

Written and directed by Shane Carruth; starring David Sullivan and Shane Carruth.