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ISSUE 118 VOL 6 PUBLISHED 10/22/2004

Below the surface in 'Primer'

By Molly Bayrd
Executive Editor

Friday, October 22, 2004

One of the most resounding lines in Primer, the latest psychological thriller to hit theaters, occurs when one of the two main characters says to the other, regarding the device the two have built, "I wanted you to believe it." It seems that filmmaker Shane Carruth, in his directorial debut, wants audiences to believe in Primer, too -- yet this highly complex film encourages disbelief as much as it promotes the opposite.

This innovative, suspenseful film is artful in its cinematography as well as its conceptual makeup, though viewers will likely be frustrated by the complicated jargon and intense subject matter consistent throughout the film's highly charged 77-minute running time.

Shot with a 16 mm and later enlarged to 35 mm, Primer maintains a sterile, monochrome appearance perfectly appropriate to the technical, corporeal themes portrayed. With tight, documentary-like camerawork, the film seems almost to confine viewers within the bounds of the movie screen, much in the same way that the film's two main characters are confined to the various spaces they inhabit.

Primer made headlines earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, where the film won the prestigious Alfred P. Sloan award for its dealings in science and technology; first-time director Carruth also took home the coveted Grand Jury Prize for best dramatic feature.

The film's opening is fairly jarring; viewers are thrown directly into the action, receiving limited background information and relatively no exposition of the unfolding events. Audiences first hear an ominous voice speaking as shots of various gadgets and tools are presented in the setting of a suburban garage; then, a group of four men seated at a kitchen table comes into view, as the voiceover fades (only to be resumed at the film's close).

All audiences do know is that two of the men in the opening scene -- businessmen and would-be inventors Abe (David Sullivan) and Aaron (Carruth, who also wrote and edited the screenplay, scored and photographed the film), are about to embark on the construction of a device more volatile and important than either of them could have foreseen.

The nature of the device the pair will construct becomes salient to viewers when Abe earnestly shows Aaron a strange fungus that has grown on a wooden egg they've placed in the chamber of their mystery machine -- a fungus that takes several years to mature, but has miraculously formed within mere days while the egg was incubating in the machine.

It soon becomes evident that the two have unwittingly created a time machine -- one that they will soon expand and make accessible for their own time travel. Primer does justice to the concept of Abe and Aaron's device by keeping things simple; the machines aren't gigantic, glowing portals or rocket-like devices -- instead, they're plain, boxy objects, intricately wired but humbly constructed (in Aaron's garage, and later at a U-Haul storage shed).

While the pair waits to confirm the consequences of their invention, they can only ponder the implications of their device, and how they might use it. Indeed, a resounding theme in the film is this: If one could travel in time, what would he do with the time he was given?

The film follows an almost elliptical plot, weaving back and forth between the lives of Abe and Aaron and the lives of their time-machine resultant doubles; it soon reaches a point at which viewers lose track of the real Abe and Aaron and cannot discern between the original pair and the cloned versions from the pair's time travel.

The last 20 minutes of the film are especially complex and harrowing; unless viewers have seen the movie once or twice before, they will likely leave the theater with a slew of unanswered questions -- testament to the abrupt plot twists in the movie's climactic final scenes.

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