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Primer

Reviewed By Beth Gilligan
Posted 10/20/04 11:37:59

"Carruth sacrifices plot for techincal jargon in Sundance hit."
3 stars (Just Average)

Primer (2004) puts forth some interesting ideas, but anyone who struggled in high school science class is going to be hard-pressed to follow them.

Despite having its indie credibility hacked to pieces by Peter Biskind’s Down and Dirty Pictures, this year’s Sundance Film Festival nevertheless managed to yield a few fresh, exciting discoveries. Among them was Primer, the Grand Jury Winner for dramatic film. Made by a first-time filmmaker for a budget of roughly $7000, Primer embodies the sort of qualities Sundance juries tend to fall over themselves for. From Edward Burns’s The Brothers McMullen to Todd Soldonz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse, the festival has consistently favored low-budget, personal film projects with Cinderella-like backstories.

The origins of Primer, which are currently being gobbled up by the media, are as follows: Trained in mathematics and engineering, 31-year old Shane Carruth began writing the film’s screenplay while still employed as a software engineer. After saving up enough money, he quit his day job, and spent the next three years serving as the film’s director, producer, cinematographer, lead actor, editor, and composer. This is impressive by any standard, but even more so given that Carruth never attended film school, and is essentially a self-taught director.

The director’s lack of experience, however, ultimately winds up being both a blessing and a curse. On the upside, this may be the last instance he gets to demonstrate to audiences his uncorrupted, uncompromised personal vision. On the downside, Carruth allows his enthusiasm for his subject to get the best of him, and as a result, Primer is often weighed down by his over-reliance on technical jargon and somewhat thin characterizations.

The plot – as best I could discern – revolves around a group of young men who spend their free time running a tech-hardware business out of their garage. This is harmless enough until two of them, Aaron (Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan), find a way to build a machine that seemingly gives them the power to fiddle with time. This discovery forces them to grapple with the essential question (as summed up by the film’s tagline): “If you always want what you can't have, what do you want when you can have anything?”

As this question demonstrates, beneath Primer’s maddeningly opaque surface lie some timely ethical concerns. While I don’t mean to suggest that directors should pander to their audiences, what frustrates me most is that audience members watching this particular film would, be hard-pressed to get a handle on these important issues, given all the technical babble they’re hidden beneath. In interviews, even Carruth has acknowledged that the film needs multiple viewings to reveal itself fully, and all but the most die-hard sci-fi fans are likely to have the patience to fork over the ten dollars to sit through it again.

Carruth may have promise, and he certainly has passion; one only hopes he channels it in a slightly more accessible fashion the next time around.

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