Primer is notable not only for its critical success, having won awards at Sundance and been lauded by independent and mainstream media alike, but also for its production methods: independent, low-budget, and home-brewed. Using rented equipment, his parent’s garage, his brother’s apartment, a slew of public facilities, and a desktop PC, Shane Carruth (writer, director, producer, and one of two main characters) has created a $7,000 Sci-Fi Drama that’s able to compete with the efforts of the big studios.
< …>Ultimately, Primer defies classification – it can stand as an intelligent Sci-Fi film, riddled with realistic engineering and cutting edge ideas, or as a Drama, Suspense, Thriller, or Mystery. The film blends elements of all to create a film that is involving in its human dimension, terse and edgy in its suspense, and ultimately pleasing to all audiences that appreciate a thought-provoking film.
One of the common threads of other reviews is that you have to watch the movie more than once to figure out what’s going on. Personally, I’m not sure that would suffice – I think paper notes might actually be required. Needless to say, the story requires attention and thought; if you’re looking for a story that progresses naturally through a conflict towards a clear resolution, this is not it. Memento, for example, is certainly a thought provoking movie, towards the end of which there are a number of A-Ha! moments in which the story resolves into clarity. Following a straightforward two thirds of a movie, the last third of Primer descends into chronological chaos, from which the viewer is never rescued by any A-Ha’s! Its one of my sources of disappointment with this DVD that the story isn’t explained any further in any of the commentaries; ultimately the level of confusion and audience-effort required almost starts to come off as pretentious – a 77 minute in-joke at the expense of those without the motivation to impress their peers by figuring it all out over several successive viewings. I say almost pretentious because (a) its really not that hard to sort out if you stop and think it through, and (b) listening to the commentaries, Carruth and his crew seem like a genuinely nice group of people.
Anyway: the story. Don’t worry, there won’t be any spoilers here that aren’t on the back of the DVD package, as I really haven’t sorted the story out fully enough yet. Aaron and Abe are a couple of daytime desk-jockey engineers who, along with some buddies, attempt to go entrepreneurial with a garage built, super-conducting levitation device. Such an effect is well observed within million-dollar labs, but Abe and Aaron’s value add is to make it happen at room temperature – opening the door to all sorts of commercial applications. Before any of this happens, however, an unexpected consequence of their room temperature thermodynamic manipulations opens the door to time travel. Starting with some stock-market manipulations, the two time-travelers get increasingly strung out and mixed up in their desire to both avoid paradoxes and right some wrongs that they are witness too. This is where things start to get confusing – suddenly one of the explorers is killing his double, some guy rolls into a party with a shotgun, neither Abe nor Aaron can write by hand any more, and whatthehellisgoingonalready. And that’s about where I’ll leave it.
One thought that occurred to me was that at least some of the confusion in the story stems from its adherence to linear time line, despite the fact that the characters are shifting back and forward in time repeatedly. Essentially, it’s the opposite strategy of Memento – in that example, the audience does the time shifting, watching the movie from finish to start; in Primer it’s the charters shifting while the audience watches from start to finish. The irony is that Primer might in fact be easier to follow if its chronology was mixed up in the same way that made Memento so fascinating. Clearer, perhaps, but less its own creature. As it stands now, Primer has raised the bar of cinematic obfuscation to new heights.
Grainy as sand, and occasionally really dark. This is a byproduct of both the production tools and budget, and of post-production digital editing. As Carruth explains in his commentary, most night scenes were filmed underexposed, using ambient light only – the result being interesting colour palettes, and lots of grain. Such is the price paid for not having rented lights. Interestingly, the use of ambient light creates night scenes that look unreal (at times), even though they are actually much more genuine than the average Hollywood production. We’ve all gotten used to (or at least I have) the notion of Hollywood-Produced Nighttime where colours, actors, and details are still visible and well-lit. The problem of grain was exacerbated by the fact that the movie was expanded up from 16mm film – the process of which (explained by Carruth) introduced substantial amounts of digital noise to certain scenes, in the form of grain. Listen to Carruth’s standalone commentary for more on this – skip forward to the nighttime fountain scene.
There’s minor particulate damage, here and there, which is refreshingly real after the recent slate of all-digital films (like Once Upon a Time in Mexico, for example). I’m one of those curmudgeonly old-schoolers that finds the progression of technology to be sapping the life and joy out of some elements of film. I’m not about to delete my MP3 collection and buy a record player, but it is refreshing to see a movie produced using film, not post-production trickery. There is actually only one special effect in the entire movie – the levitation of the hole-puncher leavings, whose white paper-dots were added digitally by Carruth.
The audio is less interesting than the video, only in the fact that it gets the job done with a minimum of fuss. Despite using ambient dialog recordings for most scenes, speech comes through very clearly, although left-to-right separation is seldom used. There isn’t a whole lot of ambient sound to experience, as most scenes are in a garage, hotel, or similarly mundane locale – overall, a dialog driven movie with a competent stereo soundtrack.
The special features are restricted to two commentary tracks – one with Carruth’s flying solo, one with Carruth, Cast, and Crew. Both commentaries are well worth listening too; each shares with the viewer a huge number of interesting tidbits about the film’s production, tricks employed in making scenes work, and the myriad decisions that went into everything from sound design to wardrobe selection. The Cast and Crew commentary is particularly notable for the good-natured banter amongst the team members – everyone seems to have a really good time remembering the things that happened while filming, and is happy to share the experience with the audience.
In any other film, two commentaries with the characteristics described above would qualify as excellent features. In the case of Primer, my enthusiasm is dampened slightly by the fact that all commentators assiduously avoid discussing the story and plot progression. While I wasn’t expecting a simple cheat-sheet for understanding the movie, I was hoping that Carruth in particular might share some insights into various parts of the film and how the presage one another, relate to each other, and so on. Unfortunately, there’s very little of this, which leaves me wishing for more.
As mentioned, the two commentaries are the only special features, with the exception of a theatrical trailer for the movie. In his commentary, Carruth points out that there weren’t really any deleted scenes to include, as only two minutes of filmed footage were cut from the final production. Nonetheless, it would have been interesting to see these two minutes, as apparently they get into Abe’s diabetes, which accounts for his neurotic attention to detail (time spent in the box timed down to the second, and of course, the muffin scene). Also, of course, I would have welcomed some type of Chronology feature – like an animated flowchart/storyboard that walks the viewer through the different timelines in the movie and how they interact. Another good feature would have been a series of Science Briefing featurettes – Carruth emphasizes the time he spent making sure the physics and science in the movie are at least plausible; more background information on the topics touched on would have fleshed things out nicely, and been interesting as an FYI. Oh well.
In conclusion, Primer is an excellent movie to prompt an evening of spirited discussion with friends (maybe over wine or something stronger, to really get the creativity flowing). This DVD release, however, isn’t all that I’d hoped for, given the film’s reputation. Certainly the commentaries are worthwhile, but the film begs for more – be it further discussion of the film itself, or just information related to its concepts. All told, worth purchasing if you saw the movie in theatre and are thirsty for more, but I’d like to think that there’s a more definitive DVD release slated for the near future.
Special Features List
- Director Commentary
- Cast and Crew Commentary