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Primer (2004)

May 6, 2010

8/10 Nerd Alerts

One of the best time travel movies out there.

Primer is about two engineers who set out to build some funky gadget to compete with the company they work for and accidentally wind up building a time machine instead. So they start small and test it on a weeble, then their curiosity gets the better of them and they get right to using it on themselves. 

And that’s when things get nuts.

The first time I saw this back when it first came out, I was not ready for it. This is one of those movies you need to listen to because just sitting back and watching it is gonna land you at a complete and utter loss by the thirty-minute mark. I really wish someone had given me that memo because that’s exactly what happened during my first foray into this cinematic brain aneurysm and rarely have I ever felt so hopelessly stupid after watching a movie. As a result, I’ve been kind of intimidated to watch it again ever since for fear my brain still wasn’t up to snuff, but after reading Kai’s recent write-up of it as one more movie I didn’t know I needed to see, I finally sat my ass down, chugged some gingko, Q-tipped my ears and hoped with all my might that I wasn’t setting myself up for further embarrassment.

77  minutes later, and I am so effing glad I gave this another shot.

See, time travel is no easy subject to tackle. It usually works best when you just keep it simple – a la Back to the Future – where there’s just enough cause-and-effect mumbo jumbo to make it fun and cool without having to get hung up on all those damn loopholes that tend to pop up. But then you have stuff like Lost or The Terminator that just go ape with time travel and loopholes, and then you’re stuck in a conversation about how John Connor could have sent Kyle Reese back to save his mom if Reese was already dead, and that’s just no good.

Let that one settle for a minute.

Usually I tend to favor DeLoreans over “constants” in this regard, but Primer is the first time I’ve seen a movie do a total nosedive into time travel theory and come out on top by the end without becoming a victim of its own devices. And that, dear readers, is one hell of a feat.

From a visual standpoint, it’s super sleek despite being filmed on a $7,000 budget (which is awesome), and the acting’s fine, but the reason this movie works whatsoever is due to Shane Carruth’s brilliant script. I wouldn’t be surprised if Carruth turned out to be a Terminator himself because this here is a guy who knows the subject front to back and is just gung-ho from head to toe about making this baby exciting, logical and wildly different from anything anyone’s ever seen before. Chances are it’s gonna confuse the hell out of you, but for a talking heads movie about two guys screwing around with a homemade time machine, it is absolutely wild and it’ll only make you want to see it again.

Loopholes? Fuck loopholes! Shane’s all over that noise.

Primer‘s plot line might get a little odd by the end and it’s still incredibly hard to follow exactly what’s going on during the final Act, but I loved how much this movie made me rack my brain and I can’t help but marvel at the straight up accomplishment of a script Carruth wrote. It feels really good to be able to sit through such a challenging, heady movie like this and actually be able to understand – or at least think I understand – what’s going on along the way. It might not be everyone’s thing, but it’s a short movie, it deserves to be seen more than once even if it does do nothing but frustrate you the first time and it is one hell of a conversation starter, especially for all us nerds in the house.

If you’re looking for light entertainment, this is definitely not it, but if you’re jonesing for something totally new that’ll have those brain cells churning for days as you hunt down anyone else who’s seen it so you can get a second opinion on what went down, this is definitely it.

25 Comments leave one →
  1. khurram hameed permalink
    May 6, 2010 12:14 am

    Have you seen TimeCrimes..can you post a review for that movie.I have read good reviews about it.

  2. May 6, 2010 5:50 am

    Absolutely phenomenal film. Have watched this about ten times and it genuinely took me 3-4 viewings to get my brains around it. Like you say, a magnificent achievement given the 1/2 shoestring budget!

    I love this film to bits, but it’s not for everyone and as you say, definitely not a no-brainer.

  3. May 6, 2010 6:22 am

    gonna have to dig this out

  4. May 6, 2010 6:57 am

    Tried to watch this one time, and the talking in this film just totally knocked me out. I had no idea what they were talking about, so by the 20 minute mark I was done. Got to give this another try then.

  5. May 6, 2010 12:00 pm

    Still don’t understand a single second of this film, but I absolutely adore it!

    • May 6, 2010 1:51 pm

      Hahaha, that seems to be the general reaction going around.

  6. Marc permalink
    May 6, 2010 1:47 pm

    While I get heavily lost in the why of things at the end, I still feel smarter by watching this:)

    One thing I miss from this movie (can call me a simpleton for wanting it) is a more clear demarkation of time. The time circuits in the DeLorean are simple – Set it and go. Primer takes a good amount of viewings to grasp it all, and I doubt I’ll ever fully understand the film but I’m ok with that:)

    • May 6, 2010 1:50 pm

      Yeah, you kinda have to be okay with being horribly confused otherwise it just won’t fly. One of those rare occasions where it’s okay to feel confused, not because it just doesn’t make sense, but because it does make sense and you just haven’t unraveled it all. Crazy stuff, man.

  7. May 6, 2010 2:54 pm

    I’ve been wanting to see this for a while now. Excellent post. I’m stealing your “weekly poll” idea fyi.


  8. May 6, 2010 7:20 pm

    I’ve been waiting to see for this forever, but I can’t get ahold of a copy of it. Arrrrrggghhh!

  9. May 6, 2010 8:28 pm

    Primer was more like a 6/10 for me. Hooked me intellectually, but emotionally, it was more than arms length away. Probably need another viewing.

    Fitz: it’s available on netflix watch instantly–hop to it.

    • May 7, 2010 7:27 am

      A second viewing definitely helps, didn’t do much for me the first time either.

  10. May 7, 2010 12:04 am

    Forgot about this movie. I gotta get to watchin’ it.

  11. May 7, 2010 2:35 am

    I have 6 thoughts ( a list, if you will… see what I did there? ) 🙂
    1. Thanks for the shot out.
    2. I’ve studied screenwriting and the first 30 minutes are totally different to me as they are completely irrelevant. They’re merely jargon-speak put in the film to justify the outcome (the machine). The true plot doesn’t even start until half way through so I always tell people to not worry too much if they’re not following in the beginning. It’s irrelevant to the plot.
    3. If you google Primer, there is a complete breakdown of the timelines out there if you’re still confused (for Marc)… who will be featured on THE LIST for some Zombie talk Monday, May 10th! [shameless plug… check!] 🙂
    4. I just realized I have picked a time-travel flick for each FILMS YOU DIDN’T KNOW YOU NEEDED TO SEE post. If you want the cool twists of Primer in a funner more accessible package, check out Timecrimes and Triangle. Seriously, top of your que… you REALLY don’t know you need to see these!
    5. Crazy thing about this movie, budget aside, is that Carruth only shot a total of 80 minutes and still got a very tight 77 minute film.
    6. Heard Rian Johnson in an interview say he had read Carruth’s next script and it was awesome… I GOTTA HAVE IT!!!

    • May 7, 2010 7:30 am

      1. Any time.
      2. Yeah, I thought that was a somewhat strange way to start the plot off, but it definitely does set the tone for the rest of the movie, that you need to start listening NOW.
      3. Interesting, but I think I’d rather just watch this a couple more times and figure it out myself, maybe with the aid of some beer.
      4. Been dying to see Timecrimes and I swear I’ll get around to Triangle one of these days. Heard nothing but great things about Timecrimes though. Did know I needed to see that one.
      5. Very cool.
      6. That is awesome. If Rian Johnson said he dug it, I’m on board.

      • May 7, 2010 11:06 am

        Sorry, apparently thought I was posting on my own site… geez… Alcohol was involved with that comment!

      • May 7, 2010 11:15 am

        haha, no worries.

    • Marc permalink
      May 7, 2010 5:16 pm

      Kai, I saw that chart a while back and it didn’t help…in fact it’s even more confusing:(

      What I’m simultaneously perplexed/bewildered by is their inhibited motor skills. They never answer why their handwriting is messed up. But, in some films, leaving answers out aids in the charm mystique of the story.

      • May 7, 2010 5:29 pm

        Oh I loved that part, the way it started out with earbleeds and then grew into their inability to write. Eerie shit as is, glad they didn’t explore that fully.

  12. May 8, 2010 1:36 am

    I consider myself pretty smart (yep), but I hated this movie. It didn’t make sense. The end.

    (Maybe I should give it another try? Perhaps over summer. When I’m in an especially good mood.)

    • May 8, 2010 1:39 am

      Give it another shot, man. I felt the same way first time around. It’s good stuff, helps to be in a good mood, too.

  13. May 11, 2010 3:04 pm

    I agree, this is one mind-bending, well crafted time-travel ride.

    Too bad I have no idea what the hell was going on half the time. And that last act just blew my mind. Crazy stuff.

  14. Branden permalink
    May 24, 2010 6:04 pm

    I would agree with most people. I have no fucking idea what happened in that movie, but it was still awesome. A grounded look at time travel, like it could really happen.


  1. Primer (2004) – What the Hell Should I Watch on NETFLIX?

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