It’s been nearly a decade since Shane Carruth’s Primer came out. The movie is an unconventional time-travel* film and extremely low-budget ($7,000) project that delivers on every level. On a whim, I watched it again yesterday and was pleasantly surprised at how well it holds up. In some sense, it’s even better now.
One of the things that makes it feel better to me in 2013 is that it is clearly from a time before social media really took off – the computers are as big as Buicks, the pace of life and modes of interpersonal exchange are still face-to-face, and the technology is less ubiquitous, more alchemical. The film plays on ethos of now-tech giants having started around the kitchen tables and in the garages of 70s, 80s, and 90s suburbia. The film also succeeds in bringing the human equation – the brokenness of human nature and the contingencies of our perceptions of reality – to the fore, never cramming the sci-fi down viewers’ throats. Even the technical jargon, which actually seems to bear some relationship to real science, is presented as asides rather than lame attempts at pseudo-explanation (I’m talking about you, Prometheus).
The filmmaker also presents compelling and simple camera work. Nothing flashy. Useful cuts. Good pacing. Subtlety. Nice compositional balance. All the basics of fundamental visual dynamics where the audience doesn’t need to be firebombed to understand what’s happening. We never focus on the technology, we focus on people.
In an era where lame reboots and aimless, mindless sci-fi films are a dime a dozen, it’s gratifying that a well-executed, thoughtful movie can be made in the genre and stand the test of time. To me, Primer holds a position similar to films like Donnie Darko or Brick (both of which also happened to be made in the first half of the 2000s). These are noir-ish, psychological films that ask big questions and mix realism and surrealism in such a way that they feel like lived experiences. The dislocations, paradoxes, neurotic turns, and seemingly inconsequential points of aesthetic and conceptual concern upon which these films pivot put the big-budget/shoot-em-up/blow-everything-up/summer-block-busters to shame. What Shane Carruth did with seven grand makes Michael Bay (with his hundreds of millions) look like a chump.
That Primer won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2004 makes complete sense. If you haven’t seen the film, do it now. It’s streaming on Netflix.
*People who know me know that, in general, I HATE time-travel movies – they’re usually bogus and annoying plot devices that offer little in terms of real narrative, conceptual, or emotional meaning. But when it works, it works.