If there is one plot device that incites the masses to freak out time and time again, to be both lazy and scrutinizing, it’s time travel. If you do it wrong, you have a Looper, where every time-travel related incident in the entire film becomes the object of a viewer’s tirade about plot holes. If you let those fears stilt you, time-travel risks becomes more incidental than integral and, for better or worse, you end up with a Safety Not Guaranteed that is about time-travel but has no actual time-travel at all. But if you do it too well, you alienate a large audience who is unwilling to take the time and effort to discern precisely what is happening. It seems that no matter what you do, the mere inclusion of time-travel, suggestive or otherwise, makes the film a target. If you had to put Primer, the Grand Jury Prize winning debut by Shane Carruth, into one of these camps, it would be the latter; the film has confused so many viewers that it has warranted timeline illustration charts explaining the plot, step-by-step.
Primer is, perhaps more than any other true time-travel film, fully aware of the fact that time-travel does not exist. It sounds obvious, but if time-travel does not exist, it means that we cannot possibly know how it will wrap itself around all the various paradoxes we associate with it. But Primer preys on our tendency to do so anyway, and limits itself to just one paradox-related line while keeping its plot basic and lean so as to avoid any “plot holes,” asking the tough questions only when they become a central part of the film, which does indeed tell a story so dense that it needs to be seen more than once.
Carruth, an engineer before he was a director, shrouds his film with scientific jargon—on the first view, you may not even know that Abe (David Sullivan), Aaron (Carruth himself), and their friends are working on a device to reduce the weight of an object. It’s realistic not only because these characters sound like scientists, but because, as it so often happens, the big discovery is gloriously serendipitous. But the jargon also establishes that Carruth and crew one step ahead of you; they make the rules, they understand how this works, and we don’t deserve exposition because time-travel is confusing and we will probably just start trying to find plot-holes to make ourselves feel better by the time we get halfway to timeline #10 anyway.
That said, it’s clear that Carruth is an engineer first and a director second. He is able to find couple great shots, but generally, these shots are the least kinetic in the film. On the flip side, movement presents a challenge which results in many scenes being rather poorly shot as the camera shakes quite heavily as it struggles to frame characters comfortably or to track from one voice to another without feeling awkward. Still, Primer is never ugly, even when it is awkward, and for a movie with a budget of a mere $7,000 shot on super 16mm, that’s impressive; it’s hard to imagine that any scene got more than one take, and yet the acting is always competent and the cinematography far from simple. For a man who must have spent a large portion of his miniscule budget on film stock, Carruth would have been excused for being much lazier here than he is, but he opts for a couple impressive long takes and admirable (although imperfect) dolly shots anyway.
He’s just as ambitious when it comes to telling his story, which is a series of escalating dilemmas when Abe and Aaron discover time-travel. First they use it for money, then they wonder if they should tell their other friends, and then they start wondering if they should change some of the events that happen and break their self-made “no causality” rule. It’s a classic question, what would you do if you could time travel, narrowed in scope by the way the device works (you can travel no further back than when you turned on the machine, you spend much time in the machine as you want to go back, and time-traveling creates intersecting timelines that permit for “doubles”), which allows us to see the sad truth: Those who are given power will abuse it, as time-travel is too powerful to be used just for money but bound to go wrong if used for anything else, however small.
Carruth could have illustrated the point more easily, however; it seems like Primer would rather be a puzzle than an uninhibited work of art, and that the only thing saving it from incomprehensibility is a narration that withholds information until it is most confusing instead of most important suggests that Carruth enjoyed stirring the pot as much as he did making a statement about time-travel and its uses. Primer is not incomprehensible, but even though it takes a bit of extra work to understand it, the reward for understanding its ins and outs is more one of feeling smart than of thematic depth. Perhaps this can be partly traced back to a budget, which may have required using narration and montage to fill-out information gaps. But at a mere 77 minutes, a lack of exposition becomes an excuse to get the show on the road where it should first develop its characters, and so the moral turns in the film’s last act are put on the back-burner as the mystery takes over. It’s a great mystery to be sure, one that will entertain for numerous viewings, Primer is not quite what it thinks it is, even if a great puzzle, competent realism, and originality is enough for it to be pretty good.