Quantum Droid: Primer (2004)

Quantum-DroidI was complaining recently about the misuse of the awesomeness of time travel when I reviewed the film ‘The Philadelphia Experiment’ for the 1984 entry in my birthday series. Of that film I said “The film drags along in a seemingly never ending series of tedious scenes that fail to develop anything interesting and then ends in a fury of special effects.” But by comparison with ‘Primer’ that film was a veritable hive of activity. And that isn’t a criticism of ‘Primer’ at all. It’s actually a testament to the fact that if you intelligently craft a film of challenging complexity, a film that fails to build an interesting story, and instead relies on a far fetched plot and whizz bang special effects, will look pretty silly in comparison. I’ve tried to keep the details of ‘Primer’ under wraps, so for those that haven’t seen it, hopefully there’s no dramatic spoilers lying in wait. And if there is, you can rest assured that they won’t help you understand the film any better.

Primer-PosterAaron (Shane Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) are involved in a tech company start up with two other friends. Working out of their garage, they build a machine that does… something. They’re not sure exactly what. It definitely doesn’t do what they intended it to do. But they’re confident it does something groundbreaking, and all they need is to figure out what that is. Working on a clue stemming from a quicker than normal build up on a unique type of fungi, they decide that the machine is a time travel device of sorts. Their first thought is, as anyone’s would be, to make themselves rich. So with careful attention to causality, they begin to loop back on themselves, using the machine to go back to a specific time in the very recent past and play the stock market. The unknown effects of the machine, and the personal agenda’s of Abe and Aaron begin to cause complications that no amount of careful planning could prevent, and their lives begin to spiral out of control.

Primer 01Boy that was a difficult synopsis to write without just repeating the plot verbatim. ‘Primer’ is an incredibly complex film, not only in plot and structure, but in dialogue and character. Each scene seems to drop us into the middle of a conversation. But one of those conversations between tech minded guys that’s all shoptalk. Very little is given to the audience, and we have to try to follow. And follow we do, even if it’s in the vaguest terms. We know they’re a struggling business, and we know they’ve discovered something. But since they don’t even know what it is, how can we? There is a great feeling once Abe and Aaron discover the possible implications of the fungi build up. It’s effective because we are on the characters journey, and discovering the invention as they do. And we are just as mystified as them along the way.

‘Primer’ is a one man tour de force. Shane Carruth wrote, directed, produced, shot, edited, scored and starred in the film. That the film turned out anything but a disaster is nothing short of amazing. He’s created a film that is purposefully challenging, with no attempt at standard exposition. The result of which is a film you won’t fully understand until you watch it again (probably more than once) and then think about or discuss at length. This is it’s greatest strength and weakness. It’s a weakness because it’s far too complex for mass consumption, making the film far too difficult for a vast majority of standard cinema goers. It’s simply too difficult and your average viewer won’t watch it twice. It’s a film for a specific audience, and the weakness refers to it’s non-commercial nature. This is not a criticism, just an observation.

Primer 02But for me, it seems tailor made. I love watching time travel taken seriously, with care and attention to detail. The gradual discovery of the true nature of the machine, the detailed preparation when Abe (who is more concerned than Aaron with taking care with causality) first takes a ‘trip’, and the specific way they play the stock market, so as to not draw attention to themselves. It’s incredibly satisfying for someone who’s enjoys a time-travel story.

‘Primer’ succeeds for nearly an hour of it’s brief 77 minute running time, until the last section, where the characters begin to loop back on themselves, and scenes are repeated with variations in dialogue and intent. The denouement feels too truncated and structurally unsatisfying. Once Abe and Aaron have realised both the danger and potential of the time machine, the film feels rushed. With the two friends both attempting to take control of the machine by going further back in time, the film becomes too confusingly abstract for it’s own good. The film doesn’t live in the moment, and only becomes clearer to you later, once you’ve deconstructed it for yourself.

Primer 03‘Primer’ is one of those “almost” films that achieve so much and teeter on the edge of, but never topple over into, greatness. It’s a remarkable achievement considering the incredibly small budget, the actors are very believable and Shane Carruth pretty much did everything. It’s one of the few time travel films that take the subject seriously, and specifically address cause and effect instead of merely using it for a plot point. Carruth’s next film is science fiction, called ‘A Topiary’, and is in some sort of pre-production, awaiting financing, who knows when stage, so I will look forward to seeing what he can do on with a larger budget next time. Whenever that comes about.

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About Judge Droid

In between refining my procrastination skills I talk a lot of shit about movies and such.

15 responses to “Quantum Droid: Primer (2004)”

  1. Xiphos0311 says :

    I’ve never heard of this movie but it sounds interesting. What kind of background in science do the characters have? I’m asking this because of the assumptions they made regarding the growth rate of fungi. Now it sounds like they made the right assumption since they actually did move in the time line. On the other hand It’s possible to change the growth rate of fungi, both speeding up or slowing down, by the introduction of various chemicals or focused radiation.

    • Droid says :

      Abe and Aaron are engineering techies, so maths and physics. They take the fungi to a lab to get tested, and the scientist tells them that the fungi requires a lot of time in a specific environment to develop. The admirable thing about the film is the way it bases the development of the time machine in the real world by using recognisable tech like palladium from their car and tubing from a fridge. It’s explained enough so that we get an idea of what it’s doing, without fully understanding how it does it. It’s not quite as realistic as the Flux Capacitor, but it’s close.

      Check out the movie if you get the chance. It’s good.

  2. Echo the Bunnyman says :

    Good review Droid. What time is it? Nearly time for Jarv to watch New Year’s Eve.

    I always enjoyed this movie, but I think you are right. It’s not quite a homerun. It’s almost more fun to talk about aftewards than it actually resonates as a story.

    It’s almost there, but I think it really doesn’t drive home the characters dramatically, and I think it’s almost too convoluted with that middle chapter. I wanted to see more emotionally fall-out when things really start unraveling. I’m not sure if those changes would make a better or worse movie, but there’s definitely something missing there.

    • Droid says :

      Cheers Jonah. I think the tiny budget might have been a factor. It definitely feels a bit rushed towards the end. I’ve seen it a few times now and I still don’t really understand the driving force behind Aaron needing to get the party event correct. And there’s some dialogue on the voiceover saying “next time it may have been perfect” or something like that. Not sure what that meant really. But it’s good nonetheless.

  3. Col. Tigh-Fighter says :

    This has been sat on my harddrive for ages. I really should watch it, as I am also a science geek, and do love films that take their science, and their audience seriously.

  4. Continentalop says :

    Great review droid, especially considering what a tangled web of a movie it is.

    Not to name drop, but I actually did some perfunctory work on this film. Before it went to Sundance he took the film to a sound house I was working at to do lay it off and do separate stems. I watched it with Shane Carruth while it was printing to tape and remember feeling incredibly jealous of the fucker. What made it worse was he is incredibly cool and humble (he’s also a big Bad Santa fan).

  5. redfishybluefishy says :

    yes! good movie, for sure. it really is one of the best for actually attempting to do time travel in a more thoughtful way. in the timetravel gengre, i also really enjoyed TimeCrimes.

    • Echo the Bunnyman says :

      Timecrimes was interesting, but sort of started falling apart for me as the cycle of events started closing the gap. A worthy effort though.

      fishy, you ever see Summer Time Machine Blues? That’s a great, silly time travel movie that does great things with paradoxes and alterations. Think of it as The Sandlot, Japanese style, with time travel.

  6. The Thorn says :

    If you liked this, then you should check out ‘Pi’: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0138704/

  7. redfishybluefishy says :

    Summer time machine blues? i’m putting that on my list, it sounds like fun. yeah, pi is an excellent movie. and jonah, you’re bang on about timecrimes, it does fall apart near the end, but it is good fun. for me it was kind of like Almodovar doing a time travel movie.

  8. Jarv says :

    Liked this. A lot.

    Doesn’t the stuff with the party take place because they accidentally fuck it up and he becomes obsessed with fixing it?

    Can’t remember though.

  9. ThereWolf says :

    That sounds all right – some positive feedback as well.

    I have heard of ‘Primer’ but just never followed it up. I’ll see if Lovefilm have got it…

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