“They took from their surroundings what was needed and made of it something more,” says the narrator of Shane Carruth’s fiendishly knotty debut, pairing words that mythologise the film’s accidental (time) tourists Aaron (Carruth himself) and Abe (David Sullivan) with a deadened electronic tone that flatpacks their experience into drudge.
It’s a fair summary of Carruth’s extraordinary achievement – having written, directed, designed, shot, scored and starred in this $4,000 Sundance winner, he has as good a claim as any towards legitimate auteurship. As underlined by an anecdote about NASA’s failed attempts to create a pen that writes in zero gravity (the Soviets used pencils), this is the science, and the cinema, of found things, awesome ideas stumbled upon by chance, a worm’s-eye-view of the first monkeys shot into space.
Sparse and unshowy, the film’s aesthetic matches the low-fi ingenuity of its protagonists, with Carruth using filters, fractured cuts and negative space to make the familiar seem strange, unsettling and ripe with possibility. An early close-up of a neon striplight flickering as an automatic door hums open recalls the design-heavy excesses of big budget sci-fi, but is revealed to be, simply, a garage in an anodyne American suburb.
This is a world away from the “Great Scots!” and naked Schwarzeneggers of previous time-travel films (“I don’t believe in any of that crap. I mean, kill your mom before you were born, whatever,” snorts Aaron), a demanding, doctorate-level study of causality and consequence, with techy, take-no-prisoners dialogue that, as in Pi (1998) or Brick (2005), is frequently so bewildering it becomes almost ambient, and a narrative that repeatedly loops back on itself. Indeed, so dense is Carruth’s film that even its apparently stark title resonates with multiple layers of meaning, denoting, variously, a science text book, a detonation device, and the DNA required to initiate replication.
Valid comparisons have been made with other non-linear debuts such as Memento (1999) and Donnie Darko (2001), but as a compelling portrait of a generation of bright, bored, emotionally disconnected drones, Primer also recalls the somewhat more volcanic Fight Club (1999).
In Carruth’s highly cynical world, love is negated to standardised codes of nuptial practice (“She worries about the cat, so you look for the cat. It’s what you do,” explains Aaron of his sidelined wife, played by Carruth’s sister), trust dissipates immediately at the prospect of self-advancement, and the protagonists are dwarved in their cold, clutter-free corporate spaces. “Do you know what they do with engineers when they turn 40?” asks a lab assistant. “They take them out and shoot them.”
Crucially, as in Groundhog Day (1992), time travel is not so much an escape as the gateway to new, increasingly complex traps – the pair may as well have entered Vincent Natali’s Cube (1997). There’s something about the way that Abe prissily prepares a muffin that suggests that foreknowledge has robbed him of surprise and sensation, leaving only worldweariness. Even time travel itself is presented as a prosaic state of self-absorption: “an entirely separate world, and you are most of it”. While travelling, Aaron dreams of a peaceful seascape. “How was it?” he is asked. “Uneventful.”
Besides heralding the arrival of a smart, seemingly fully formed film-maker, Primer blends physics and philosophy to retell the story of science itself – a story of querulous questions and insufficient answers, of brilliant men blundering in the dark, of how each step towards enlightenment just takes us nearer to obliteration.