From: Subject: Date: April 21, 2005 3:53:51 PM CDT Hankblog

Friday, November 12, 2004

Movie Review: Primer
(2004) Starring - Shane Carruth, David Sullivan, Carrie Crawford, Casey Gooden, Anand Upadhyaya; Director - Shane Carruth; Screenplay - Shane Carruth; Rated PG-13 for some language.

Every once in a while you come across a movie that you really just can't explain and begin to do justice to the thing. It's a comment I've heard quite a bit about I (Heart) Huckabees lately. It was also how I felt about Pi. I mean, how do you really explain a movie that is on a surface level about math, for crying out loud? Never mind that it ultimately all comes back to the one true name of God.

In the latter respect, some of the same things could be said about Primer, a film currently on the art house circuit that really tries to turn your brain into a pretzel. While not as complete a film nor as effectively executed as Pi in my mind, Primer is still an interesting and challenging film that offers some neat discussion opportunities after seeing it.

So what is Primer?
Aaron (Shane Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) are a couple of engineers working with a couple of friends from college on various projects in Aaron's garage. Though they have had a couple of minor commercial successes selling some homemade PC cards they've designed, Aaron, Abe, Robert (Casey Gooden), and Phillip (Anand Upadhyaya) are all frustrated at not being able to come up with something that will give them the financial and professional independence they desire. They also all want to come up with something that can really help change the world as they know it.

One day Aaron and Abe are tinkering with something they keep referring to as "the box" when they get some very unexpected results. Exploring the results further makes Aaron and Abe realize they have stumbled onto something far more potent than they ever expected: a very real means by which one may be able to travel back in time. It's in confronting the surface level possibilities such a device offers and the ethical questions lying underneath that Aaron and Abe find they might have much more than they bargained for.

Sounds like standard sci-fi fare. How does it work?
Well, that's not a good assumption to make off the bat. This movie is sci-fi in the same way that Gattaca was sci-fi. That is to say that it takes a sci-fi premise or convention, but then builds a straight dramatic story around it. Not to give too much of the plot away, but really the movie is more a step removed from Wall Street or The Boiler Room, with their questions regarding financial ethics. That having been said, the movie is flawed but has some interesting things going for it.

Carruth and Sullivan as Aaron and Abe will not be accepting any Oscars for acting awards any time soon. But they do have an engaging chemistry as two old friends just trying to piece puzzles out. They have a rapid patter going back and forth as one person teases the idea out, and the other picks the ball up and runs with it. At points, they don't even really finish the thought out loud, which would leave the audience a bit more clueless were they not so good at showing they know where the idea is going with their non-verbals. There's a scene involving them brainstorming in front of Aaron's basketball goal involving Aaron and the ball that helped me understand the science better than anything either character said out loud.

There's also some visual treats that Carruth offers up as a director that show he might have some potential future on the other side of the camera. A shot done through a garage door's windows does gives a nice subtle illumination of just how separate Aaron and Abe are from their fellow geeks in terms of understanding the things they want and how to get them. There are a few other scenes in the same vein that show that while Carruth may not have known a thing about filmmaking before taking up this project, he has some good instincts for what works and what doesn't. You can go to the official website and see the bios for both Carruth and Sullivan to see they come by the geek thing honestly.

Sounds like a lot of potential. Do they live up to all of it?
Well there are some definite pitfalls along the way, and most of them tie back to the script.

First of all, the dialogue in I'd guess the first 15-20 minutes of the feature is almost all tech heavy. While the way the characters talk about these matters helps give a little bit of insight into the characters, it's easy to get lost in all the engineer speak and lose track or interest in where they're trying to go with the story.

Even more difficult to contend with is where the script seems to completely jump the tracks when it tries to go into full fledged sci-fi time travel mode. There's a major plot point centering on an aspect of their invention called the "fail safe" that would attempt to explore some of the potential conflicts involved in time travel regarding paradoxes and alteration of future events. As the fail safe matters build to a head and the big surprise ending, I found myself looking for a remote to skip back a couple of chapters on the non-existent DVD and rewatch scenes to see if made the ending make more sense. My companion for the evening was equally befuddled as to how we wound up at the ending. I'm not entirely convinced that even a repeat viewing would clear things up a whole lot.

Also frustrating was a subplot involving a girl Abe is interested in for access to her father, who might be able to offer the venture capital needed to get Abe and Aaron out on their own. The subplot is batted around a bit in the first third, almost completely forgotten in the middle third, and then drops out of the sky in the last third for a final surprise before being completely discarded. It feels like an idea that was never fully fleshed out, but kept in to help pad the running time to keep the film closer to feature length, and not looking like a bloated short. At a 78 minute running time, it just barely accomplishes this, but I could have done with it being a bit shorter and the nonsensical subplot being discarded altogether.

Not the strongest endorsement
I know, and I don't want to come off like I am damning the movie with faint praise. It is an interesting film, and worth a look if for no other reason than to see what someone can accomplish without a strong educational background in filmmaking. It is trying to do something original as a small independent film. This is something that should be commended and encouraged. There is talent on display in a fair capacity. Just don't go in expecting Citizen Kane, or even Following or Pi. Just enjoy it for what it is, because the parts that do work provide a decent amount of grist to mill with friends after a joint viewing. That's worth the price of a rental or a matinee viewing any time you can get it.