High School literature teachers have always been in the unique position of introducing an annual batch of “almost-adults” to great works of classic fiction, exposing them to the wonderful and terrible worlds of Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo” and Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” As first time art appreciators, these texts open the mind’s eye to intellectual wonder. In the same way, 2004’s “Primer” opened my eyes to the beauty of film.
Let me take you back. The year is 2006, Myspace is still dominant and on a lark I type “best time travel movie ever” into a blocky Yahoo! search bar.
“Primer” popped up, and is in no uncertain terms the “best time travel movie ever.” With a low-key aesthetic that sets your expectations low and mind at ease, “Primer” promptly obliterates these expectations. Its second act is so twisty, complicated, and demanding that it will leave you spinning. Clocking in at 80 minutes, “Primer” only has time for two acts; the discovery and its result.
With a first act that nails suburban office culture, the likes of which will be familiar to anyone who works in any technical capacity. “Primer” could just be a 40 minute short about the trials and tribulations of working for a passion outside of an established system. Aaron and Abe are two friends, coworkers, and hardware start-up partners. They discover time travel and cut out their two other hardware start-up partners.
This is a unique type of time travel though. While it deals with a box. It is decidedly less free form than other box-based time travel. An understanding of how the time travel system works going into your first viewing, can only help you. It will surely manage to reduce the amount of questions on your first viewing. Time travel in the film does not have a finite, predetermined quantity to it. Time changes and shifts. You cannot trust it.
Abe and Aarons’ relationship is at the core of this movie however. They struggle with trust, and in time the glue in their friendship erodes with each realization that they might not be in control of their own timeline. Void of fancy effects, the time travel machines are literally just boxes in a storage facility, the drama takes center stage.
Admittedly, it gets very complicated. As a frame of reference, Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” (2010) had five timelines and no time travel. That film clocked in at two and a half hours. In comparison, this film has around nine timelines. Adding to the possible confusion is the lack of visual distinction between the timelines. Whereas Inception had a distinct color palette which laboriously worked to let the audience know exactly what timeline they were looking at, “Primer” keeps the same cool visual consistency no matter what.
“Primer” even includes some interesting production trivia. The budget of “Primer” had four digits. That’s right, for a semester of tuition you could make a movie that wins the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. This price comes with some rough audio production that while easy to overlook, is very noticeable in a few parts. Visually, the film ages surprisingly well because the film’s star, Shane Carruth decided against digital, and used 16mm film.
This film opened my eyes to the importance of an auteur, and authorship. Film is not about budget or opulence, it’s about story, character, and purpose. Film is about the choices a filmmaker makes. For those interested in quality moviemaking should watch “Primer.”
“Primer” is available on Hulu.