The use hard sci-fi in ‘Primer’

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Recently I re-watched my favorite time travel movie, Primer. I feel confident in saying that I have more admiration for this film and its creator, Shane Carruth, than I do with any other movie or filmmaker.

Many have not heard of Primer, which is understandable. It won the grand jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004, but was never commercially released.     

Many have never heard of Shane Carruth, which may be even more understandable. It is no doubt surprising that an award-winning filmmaker wouldn’t have an active social media account or pop up in the news frequently for word on upcoming projects. He’s not dead, and he’s likely working on his next film – he just chooses to stay quiet.

What is Primer, though? It is a time travel movie as I mentioned, but unlike most other time travel movies, Primer’s genre is hard sci-fi.

The difference between that and the typical sci-fi genre being that hard sci-fi is when science fiction focuses on scientific accuracy. In other words, it tries to be realistic about fictitious concepts.

On paper, making time travel sound realistic and scientifically plausible without contradicting itself sounds insanely complicated, and it definitely is. The plot follows two protagonists: Aaron and Abe, who are physicists working out of a garage trying to make a profitable invention.

While trying to make a device that messes with gravity, they discover that they’ve accidentally created a time machine. They originally planned to use the machine to make money on the stock market, but betrayal and personal stakes set the story en route for disaster.

To say this film is complicated is the understatement of the century. A lot of the dialogue in this film is characters talking about physics and scientific concepts that go over most viewer’s heads during their first watch (unless you happen to have a wide knowledge of complex physics).

While writing the script, Shane Carruth refused to dumb the dialogue down, instead opting to keep the factual scientific terms in all of their brain-melting glory. The paradoxes that come with this film’s realistic depiction of time travel is hard to wrap your mind around and is the most confusing element.

If you can understand exactly what happened upon first viewing then congratulations, but for me and many others, YouTube videos and multiple rewatches are required for a sufficient understanding of the events.

What is equally as impressive as the film itself is the man behind it, Shane Carruth. He is Primer in about every possible way. He wrote it with complex scientific dialogue and with some of the most realistic conversations ever put to screen.

He directed it using the limited locations and resources he had to the fullest extent possible. It may be important to mention that this award-winning film was made for just a measly $7,000 USD.

If you want a metric of quality, then consider that this film grossed over $840,000 USD. He starred in the film as Aaron and played the role very believably, revealing that he can act with the best of them.

If that wasn’t already impressive, Shane also produced the film, cast it, edited it, did the production design, was the sound designer, and even did the musical score — additionally, this was the first film he ever made.

So accomplishing all of that and making back your budget 120 times over made for an impressive debut, no doubt. It took nine years for his next film, Upstream Colour, to come out.      

Primer is one of those movies that’s hard to compare to any others. It’s hard to understand, which, to me, is refreshing considering that often nowadays we’re spoon-fed information in films with little thought required.

The film’s camera work was also very fluid and pleasing to watch. The originality and neat spin on the time travel concept was masterful. I feel the film could’ve absolutely benefited from a larger budget, I’d be lying if I neglected to point out how certain instances of the film feel low budget and cheap.

Overall this film is a feat, and its ruthless ambition alone skyrockets the film to one of my favorite science fiction movies. I encourage you to watch this, digest it, then watch it again. Primer is unique in the way that the more you watch it, the more you understand, which is rare and honestly quite beautiful in its own way.

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