Primer (2004)

Drama Rated PG-13

Where’s Doc Brown when you need him?

Primer runs on the same sort of time-travel trippyness that drove 1985’s Back to the Future, but its inexplicability goes far beyond the pseudo science at its center. It’s not only that we don’t understand how time travel is supposed to work in the film (flux capacitors make no sense either). It’s that we also don’t understand things like the motives and objectives of the movie’s characters. Primer is inscrutable to the nth degree, and yet I still liked it.

The appeal, for me, has everything to do with the uncompromising way first-time writer-director-star Shane Carruth (working with a reported budget of $7,000) goes about his business. From its opening moments – of four friends chattering away over some home-made invention that’s laid out in a suburban garage – Primer proceeds without any obvious concern for its audience. Still wearing their white shirts and ties, as if they rushed directly from their day jobs to work on the project, these armchair scientists putter away and pore over data as if they’re on the verge of something big. And we believe they are, in part because of the portentous glow Carruth gives the most domestic of scenes. (The light streaming from the garage-door windows recalls nothing less than Close Encounters of the Third Kind, surely a touchstone).

Primer proceeds without any obvious concern for its audience.

All of this captures one thing: the excited hubbub of invention. Primer echoes the invention myth of Steve Jobs and Apple, yet keep in mind the movie came out in the wake of the dot-com bust of the early 2000s. Doom is in the air. Two of the friends – Aaron (played by Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) – break away from the others to pursue a promising new direction that suggests a form of time travel. Their invention works – I won’t even attempt to explain how – and at first they’re content to make a little money “predicting” the stock market. But who is ever content in a mad scientist movie?

This is where Primer becomes both more interesting and distancing. As things begin to unravel for Aaron and Abe, we understand this mostly from the general level of panic that seeps into their performances (as well as the occasional bleeding from the ear). We never quite understand how things have gone awry, or even what motivated Aaron and Abe to take on added risks. Primer tries to put the puzzle together with an explanatory ending – there’s a cryptic voiceover narration that comes in and out – but being pointed to a completed puzzle is not quite as fun as helping to complete one.

So yes, it rewards repeat viewings. And I’m OK with that, because unlike so many “mind-blowing” movie experiences, Primer never throws its audaciousness at you as a haughty challenge. This is the film it’s going to be – this is the conundrum Carruth wants to create – and there’s something admirable about that sort of commitment to one’s vision, no matter how convoluted. Not every trip back in time is a simple as hitting 88 mph in a DeLorean.