Cult Film Club – Primer

Primer is one of the oddest movies you’ll ever see. I don’t use that lightly, or as anything other than the highest praise, either. It’s got a narrative that slides sideways through the way you perceive time, and ends up giving you just enough pieces to work out what’s going on, even as it does the same for its characters.

Made on a shoestring by Shane Carruth, whose deeply bizarre second movie Upstream Colour will also be turning up in this series, it starts out as the story of two engineers. Aaron (played by Carruth) and Abe, played by the always excellent David Sullivan, are hobby entrepreneurs. They want to be the next Jobs and Gates but, sitting around the kitchen table handmailing JTAG cards out, they’re years away from even getting close to those goals.

Primer 1

Then, Aaron comes up with a device that lowers the weight of whatever’s put inside it. Not by much, but any weight reduction across a large enough load is going to save money and anything that saves money is going to make them money. The pair of them quietly edge their fellow hobbyists out of the project, set to work and then, realize something odd.

There’s a build up of algae on the inside of the box the device is based around.  That in itself isn’t interesting. The fact there’s over a week’s worth of algae growth in a box that was only turned on a few hours though? That gets their attention.

Aaron and Abe have got their innovation. A time machine.

What follows is basically the most buttoned down, realistic, geek horror movie ever made. The horror is never overt, in fact the two fights in the movie both happen off screen, with Carruth cutting away just as they’re about to happen. Instead, it’s the creeping realization that something is fundamentally broken, that feral science and basic ambition have combined to create a disaster so immense that the men at the centre of it can only grasp just enough to realize how bad it is.

A big part of this horror comes from Carruth’s restraint as a director and writer. Part of that seems to come from this being his first picture and the micro budget but it’s effective nonetheless. We never see the two men think of building human-sized ‘boxes’, because we don’t have to. Aaron simply takes Abe to the storage locker where they’ve been keeping their stuff and waits. After a while, another Abe emerges from the locker and heads off. They don’t need to invent time travel, because they already have.

Primer 2

The first half of this very short, tight movie is crammed full of moments of punchy visual invention like that. Appropriately, you don’t notice a couple of them the first time through either, like the moment Aaron starts wearing an earpiece or a very odd cut between them turning the box on and Abe waking up in a different room. It’s all presented so matter of factly, and the two men react so little, that you just go with it. The Box, the idea is king and that, combined with the money the two men are making on the stock market, keeps them together for a while.

Then things diverge in every sense as Carruth  quietly begins setting Abe and Aaron against one another. By using the machine they’re effectively copying themselves over and over and Carruth takes the startlingly brave decision to have the two men, and us, increasingly unclear of just what copies we’re seeing. Multiple Abes and Aarons move through the film, their conversations always progressing logically but sometimes because they’ve had these conversations before. Reality becomes theatre, the earpieces become very important and the two men’s friendship begins to fray at the edges. There’s an especially chilling moment where we see just why Aaron has been acting like he’s acting, compounded by a nice moment of reversal on Abe’s own view of their research. It’s reminiscent of the warring journals and narratives of Borden and Dangier in The Prestige, just with button down shirts and pocket protectors. This is Nerd War One, and neither man quite admits they’re fighting it until it’s too late.

The film’s true genius lies in the ghosts of other narratives that constantly float through it. Mr Grainger, a venture capitalist the two men are courting, seems to have travelled through time himself, Aaron begins networking with his other selves and both men begin to feel the effects of being copies. One of the film’s most chilling lines is the offhand reveal that neither has the handwriting they used to have, the endless copies degrading subtly but constantly. All of this combines with their differing views of the research to put the two men at loggerheads. Their conflict is ideological, verbal, polite and utterly vicious. It’s also perfectly in keeping with scientific thinking and as the film closes, it’s unclear if either of them is right. What is clear is that the original timeline, the ‘Primer’of the title is gone forever. All that remains are countless doubles of Abe and Aaron, one group pulling towards progress, the other pulling towards safety. Their spot in history is assured but history itself is a very different story.

Primer 3

That’s your Cult Film for the month. Check it out, it’s great. There are even diagrams explaining how time works in it. Next month it’ll either be the splendidly odd John Dies At The End or the original Godzilla. I’ll see you then.

GS Blogger: Alasdair Stuart

More from the world of Geek Syndicate

%d bloggers like this: