When I think of time travel stories that push the realms of science fiction farther than what may seem possible, I think of movies like The Time Machine and the Back to the Future movies. Mainly, I think of Doctor Who, because that may be the most innovative and groundbreaking piece of work to ever deal with the concept. Never would I have thought of Primer, a super low budget time travel movie that shows how much you can do with some money and a great idea. With its technical jargon, mind bending story, and characters out for their best interests, Primer plays out like some sort of strange Shakespearean science journal.
Aaron (Shane Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) are engineers hoping for any sort of major discovery to come their way. Operating out of Aaron’s garage, the two are working on a machine that can reduce the weight of an object, but to their surprise they accidentally invent time travel. This invention opens up a world of possibilities for the two engineers, and they decide to use this new found discovery to travel back through time and use their knowledge of the future to make big money on the stock market. With a set of rules in place to make sure they don’t severely mess up the space/time continuum, everything seems to be working until the two friends begin working behind each other’s back and changing events to their own desires.
This is one of the most difficult movies that I’ve ever sat through, and despite it just being a little over a hour, it felt like a much longer movie. The beginning of the movie really takes no prisoners in terms of scientific and mathematical dialogue. Carruth, the writer/director/star of the movie, stated that he didn’t want to dumb any of the dialogue down for audiences. I can really respect that, especially in a time where filmmakers really want to cater to their audiences. The fact that Carruth can write in such a way may be due to his degrees in mathematics and engineering. The dialogue may be hard to understand, but it sure is cool to listen to.
What actually makes Primer so cool is how low budget it is (it was only made for $7,000, and most of that money went to buying film stock). Everything about it feels low budget, and I’m not just talking about the aesthetics of the movie. Even the whole time travel machine feels like it could’ve been made in someone’s garage, and it was. There’s no cool sound effects or flashiness that helps a lot of time travel films and shows. This one is completely an idea. We know how the machine works (sort of) and we believe science will happen without special effects telling us. Don’t get me wrong, flashy science fiction is awesome, but for Primer it is completely unnecessary.
This movie is a sci-fi film that’s heavy on the science, but seems pretty light on the fiction. Yes, of course, time travel is not possible, and scientists say it will never be possible. It’s set up in a way in this movie that it seems like this would be the most possible it would ever be. This is what crude time travel would look like. The whole science behind it is mind boggling, and once the two engineers begin going behind each other’s backs with the machine, the plot becomes almost impossible to follow. This was intentional, however, and trying to piece together everything that’s happening and make sense of it is part of what makes this movie so much fun.
Primer is not a movie for everyone. I feel like the way the plot twists and turns completely out of the space/time continuum without explanation is so unapologetically mind boggling, that people would lose interest. You have to know what kind of movie you’re going into see, and it’s one that doesn’t dumb down it’s theory or dialogue for the audience, nor does it take the time to completely explain everything. If you want a movie that’s going to make you think pretty hard for a couple of days in order to even remotely understand what actually happened, Primer is the low budget masterpiece you’re looking for.