Shane Carruth
Release Year:
Length (mins):
Shane Carruth
Shane Carruth, David Sullivan, Casey Gooden.
Screening Date:
  • 7 Apr 2020
  • Categories:
    Drama, Thriller, Science Fiction

    A film about four friends who accidentally discover an invention for time travel. This is low budget, experimental, philosophical and dialogue-rich film has developed a cult following. Grand Jury Prize at 2004 Sundance Film Festival.

    Film Notes

    Shane Carruth's "Primer" opens with four techheads addressing envelopes to possible investors; they seek venture capital for a machine they're building in the garage. They're not entirely sure what the machine does, although it certainly does something. Their dialogue is halfway between shop talk and one of those articles in Wired magazine that you never finish. We don't understand most of what they're saying, and neither, perhaps, do they, but we get the drift. Challenging us to listen closely, to half-understand what they half-understand, is one of the ways the film sucks us in.

    They steal a catalytic converter for its platinum, and plunder a refrigerator for its freon. Their budget is so small, they could cash the checks on the bus. Aaron and Abe, agreeing that whatever they've invented, they're the ones who invented it, subtly eliminate the other two from the enterprise. They then regard something that looks like an insulated shipping container with wires and dials and coils stuff. This is odd: It secretes protein. More protein than it has time to secrete. Measuring the protein's rate of growth, they determine that one minute in the garage is equal to 1,347 minutes in the machine.

    Is time in the machine different than time outside the machine? Apparently. But that would make it some kind of time machine, wouldn't it? Hard to believe. Aaron (Shane Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) ponder the machine and look at their results and Aaron concludes it is "the most important thing any living being has ever witnessed." But what is it?

    There's a fascination in the way they talk with each other, quickly, softly, excitedly. It's better, actually, that we don't understand everything they say, because that makes us feel more like eavesdroppers and less like the passive audience for predigested dialogue. We can see where they're heading, especially after ... well, I don't want to give away some of the plot, and I may not understand the rest, but it would appear that they can travel through time.

    They learn this by seeing their doubles before they have even tried time travel -- proof that later they will travel back to now. Meanwhile (is that the word?) a larger model of the machine is/was assembled in a storage locker by them/their doubles.

    Should they personally experiment with time travel? Yes, manifestly, because they already have. "I can think of no way in which this thing would be considered even remotely close to safe," one of them says. But they try it out, journeying into the recent past and buying some mutual funds they know will rise in value.

    It seems to work. The side effect, however, is that occasionally there are two of them: the Abe or Aaron who originally lived through the time, and the one who has gone back to the time and is living through it simultaneously. One is a double. Which one? There is a shot where they watch "themselves" from a distance, and we assume those they're watching are themselves living in ordinary time, and they are themselves having traveled back to observe them. But which Abe or Aaron is the real one? If they met, how would they speak? If two sets of the same atoms exist in the same universe at the same time, where did the additional atoms come from? It can make you hungry, thinking about questions like that. "I haven't eaten since later this afternoon," one complains.

    "Primer" is a puzzle film that will leave you wondering about paradoxes, loopholes, loose ends, events without explanation, chronologies that don't seem to fit. Abe and Aaron wonder, too, and what seems at first like a perfectly straightforward method for using the machine turns out to be alarmingly complicated; various generations of themselves and their actions prove impossible to keep straight. Carruth handles the problems in an admirably understated way; when one of the characters begins to bleed a little from an ear, what does that mean? Will he be injured in a past he has not yet visited? In that case, is he the double? What happened to the being who arrived at this moment the old-fashioned way, before having traveled back?

    The movie delights me with its cocky confidence that the audience can keep up. "Primer" is a film for nerds, geeks, brainiacs, Academic Decathlon winners, programmers, philosophers and the kinds of people who have made it this far into the review. It will surely be hated by those who "go to the movies to be entertained," and embraced and debated by others, who will find it entertains the parts the others do not reach. It is maddening, fascinating and completely successful.

    Note: Carruth wrote, directed and edited the movie, composed the score, and starred in it. The budget was reportedly around $7,000, but that was enough: The movie never looks cheap, because every shot looks as it must look. In a New York Times interview, Carruth said he filmed largely in his own garage, and at times he was no more sure what he was creating than his characters were. "Primer" won the award for best drama at Sundance 2004.

    Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times, 28th October 2004.

    Your mind might not exactly be blown, but it should get substantially interfered with by this low-fi sci-fi nightmare from newcomer Shane Carruth about two scientists who come up with the world's most important invention in their garage. In its occultist intensity, Primer is obviously influenced by Darren Aronofsky's Pi and the downbeat menace of Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation.

    That doesn't do justice to its prickly originality, however; it sometimes resembles a rabbitless Donnie Darko for grownups, and the film's paranoid grain is similar in texture to Michael Mann's The Insider. In its weird idealism, though, it actually reminded me a little of The Man in the White Suit, with Alec Guinness as the sprightly boffin who invents self-cleaning cloth. As in that movie, Carruth believes in portraying scientists not as cliched geeks or sinister corporate lackeys, but authentic, if flawed, heroes of original thought who achieve astounding things without institutional help.

    Primer was head-scratchingly baffling for an awful lot of the time, especially towards the end. Yet it had me completely gripped like nothing else around. This is a type of movie-making that assumes its audience are intelligent adults - and it breaks lots of other Hollywood rules, too! The dialogue is indirect, obscure, technical stuff. The characters do not overcome emotional obstacles; the two male leads are both married men, yet there is no romantic crisis and the invention's success does not test their friendship in the conventional manner. They even get involved with an extraordinary showdown involving a gun and a woman - yet the narrative style is so indirect, so gnomic, that this event occurs in a dramatic zero-gravity.

    As for the science itself, it is evidently bizarre and absurd, though precisely how bizarre and absurd I am not qualified to judge. Writer-director Shane Carruth began his working life as an engineer, though his script might yet find its way into the Bad Science column of this newspaper's Life supplement. But for all its weirdness and indeed barking madness, Primer is a glorious rebuke to a dumbed-down movie world in which scientific and technological investigation means looking something up on Google.

    Carruth and David Sullivan play Aaron and Abe, two guys who have day jobs as engineers, and in fact wear suits and ties in various stages of dishevelment throughout the film. They are developing funky projects on their own time, which they are hoping to punt out to VCs - venture capitalists. One of these is a new refrigeration system that gets things cold without itself being cold. But Aaron and Abe become distracted by the strange way in which certain inert gases, in a homespun metal box, appear to increase the mass of an enclosed object under certain conditions. Five years' worth of mould grows in five minutes. A watch left in there runs backwards. That's right. They have invented a time machine.

    It is a giant achievement for this film that you don't laugh out loud. You whisper: "Wow." And this deadpan effect is achieved by very plausible stunned behaviour on the part of the two inventors, who don't turn cartwheels or immediately scramble for winning lottery numbers, but look as if the universe might just split in two, right where they have found the hairline crack. They are too scared to say out loud what they have done.

    The insuperable difficulty of time-travel stories comes when you travel back to before your time-travel machine was invented. It is a self-cancelling impossibility which Primer sidesteps - kind of - by having its two time-travellers make cautious six-hour hops ahead, before scuttling back to the present. They climb into a great big humming box hidden in a self-storage warehouse from which they are able to make forays into the future, cautiously learn about successful stock prices for companies with trade volumes large enough to camouflage their own bets, before coming back to ground-level. Then they spend that repeat time holed up in a hotel room, where there is no danger of meeting their parallel future-doubles, out foraging for inside information. "Are you hungry?" one asks languidly. "I haven't eaten since later this afternoon."

    Does it make them rich? Does it make them happy? Does it, like the treasure of the Sierra Madre, turn them against each other? No, no, and not exactly. There is no obvious moral: Abe and Aaron are tensely in denial about their discovery, which they treat as matter of factly as card-counting at blackjack - the only viable alternative to going gibberingly insane. They fantasise a little about riches and about punching their boss on the nose, before the storyline takes a weird detour into a subplot about someone threatening a woman they know with a gun at a party. In fine Groundhog Day style, they revisit the event again and again, to perfect their technique for disarming the attacker and so impressing the woman's father - an important venture capitalist who can make them both billionaires. The paranoia kicks in when one suspects the other of already spilling the secret to this shadowy Mr Big.

    Primer really does spread a radioactive creepiness around its subject, simply by treating it as an everyday conspiracy thriller, and this radioactivity pours relentlessly from the screen. Like its characters, this film is very, very ambitious and rather mad. Yet how much more interesting than the usual low-IQ product elsewhere. It's an exhilarating, disturbing and funny experience.

    Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian, 19th August 2005.

    What you thought about Primer

    Film Responses

    Excellent Good Average Poor Very Poor
    2 (10%) 7 (33%) 9 (43%) 1 (5%) 2 (10%)
    Total Number of Responses: 21
    Film Score (0-5): 3.29

    Collated Response Comments

    111 joined the third streamed screening for Primer. The film had a wide range of responses from different members of the society:

    "General: I am so incredibly happy that these films can be streamed. I, for one, really need some kind of normality in this crazy time and I always look forward to Tuesday night GFS Film night. Thank you also for the pre-film commentary. So enjoyable and helps with the 'normality'.

    The film: Hard to follow but intriguing all the same. I laughed at them wearing shirts and ties. My ex-colleagues always wore ties in that timeframe. Sweet to see it in this film. I really enjoyed the explanation 'trailer' afterwards. If I had the time I would have re-watched the entire film. This was almost like The Sixth Sense where you find out at the end that Bruce Willis is .... ! ... but it's so obvious once you know. Thanks again."

    "Well, what can I say about this film? We sat down to watch it full of intrigue as to what it might be about and whether we would understand it. First off we had difficulty with the streaming which may have been because of our internet connection but it took us at least three attempts before the film was up and running.

    We found the dialogue hard to hear and hard to understand what they were saying. We wished that we had the option of sub-titles because in the early part of the film the four young men frequently spoke over each other and we generally only caught part of what they were saying. Two of the characters in the garage then seemed to depart from the story and were hardly, if ever, seen again. Perhaps they had already entered another time warp.

    We did struggle on with the film though and had a fair idea of what was going on but there were occasions when we were tempted to give up and go and watch something more straightforward like East Enders. I thought I had fathomed out that each of the two characters had a double but I seemed to miss the parts of the film where they observed their doubles across a car lot or something similar. We also wondered what sort of jobs the two men held down which entitled the dark haired man to a rather slick office and both of them to considerable time to transport themselves to other time zones. Or perhaps their doubles were doing their jobs in the meantime. I think that one of the young men was married and I would have thought his wife would have wondered what on earth he was up to with his friend in the garage - and didn't his daughter wish he was around more. Also the ear bleeding episode would have had me rushing post haste to the doctor to see what on earth was going on but the character involved just seemed to dab at it with noncholance.

    There were strange side plots which seemed almost superfluous to the film and were certainly lost on me. I wondered if they just wanted to offer parts to their friends to keep them happy and include them in the project.

    Having stuck it to the end we felt obliged to watch the short to see if it shed any further light. I think my brain must have been very tired by that point because I found the diagrams unnecessarily confusing and would rather someone had just sat down and talked me through it.

    We appreciated that this was a low budget film and we applaud the young men for having taken on what was obviously a difficult subject and done it without the need for expensive graphics, etc. However, we both felt it ranked amongst the poorest offerings we have seen at GFS. Our eldest son, who is a film buff, had been interested to hear that we would be seeing it and I shall look forward to discussing it with him when next we speak."

    "Pleased that Primer didn't depict time travel as magic. Primer has none of that and is mind bending. Found it very hard to grasp at any time, so thanks for the 'explanation' short which made a big difference. An attempt to obey the laws of physics (okay, still some impossibility in the premise). Thought the physical exhaustion of the protagonists made this almost believable; to travel back in time for 12 hours, the protagonists have to be at machine for 12 hours so they can't go back other than when the machine is switched on. The original timeline that we believe to be the original timeline isn't. We are actually watching a subverted timeline – a timeline taken hostage by time travel really. Found it byzantine, and recursive and the characters speak technical language if you're not an engineer.

    Abe and Aaron start time-travelling regularly to make as much money as possible by watching for stocks that make the most significant gains during the day. Also during a party something terrible happens and Abe & Aaron begin manipulating the events of the party by using their new time travel super power to solve the problem of what happened that night. However the fracturing of the relationship between Aaron and Abe as one has more petty ends. But Primer has its own primer which helped me hugely. Thanks so much for making my brain hurt, but enjoyably so!"

    "I am back in Physics and Chemistry ...I am trying to concentrate but the harder I try the faster it slips away from me. So; a film in which the MacGuffin, as spoofed in the likes of 'Repo man' and 'Pulp Fiction' is the whole film. I love the convincing geekery, no convenient stroke of genius here, but by the time I really needed to follow the plot I was already slipping off the pace and never really caught up. I like the realism, I like that the main characters are believably ordinary and flawed, I love that it treats a familiar theoretical conundrum seriously but I can't say I enjoyed it greatly."

    "Thanks once again for this streaming. All worked well.

    I found this film confusing, the dialogue a bit hard to follow but still curiously absorbing, unpredictable, and enjoyable overall. It certainly got me thinking. Watching the 'explainer' afterwards helped a bit. Would love to come back to this one again."

    "Made for $7000 back in 2003/4... Amazing. Some plot holes.... sorry, many plot holes... "Too many possible outcomes so actions are irrelevant" Nice get out of jail card to have. I saw the film back in 2005 and thought it was great than. To say the film was made on such a small budget I think it has aged well... But it made less sence to me this time around... Time loop pun intended."

    "A good film, well put together.

    The plot was thoroughly opaque.

    The short more or less explained it all but it was too much for this small brain."

    "I am afraid I couldn't quite follow it. I found it very difficult to follow the scenario. The short explanation film did help but I shouldn't have needed to have that to help me understand the film!"

    "I have watched the short and still don't fully understand Primer. But the movie was interesting. And thank you for fixing the glitch that, last week, was affecting Smart TVs. The two segments merged seamlessly this week."

    "I appreciate the complexities in the making of the film but I'm afraid it wasn't for me. I found the first 20 minutes or so totally incomprehensible and only started to sort of get it later on.

    Watching the explanation at the end not only confused me more but made me feel that not getting it made me somehow unworthy in the film world.

    I don't expect to always be 'entertained' when I watch a film but I would like to feel I'd been part of something."

    "Certainly an interesting sci fi / time travel / nerdy film. Didn't care for the characters, but did enjoy the camera work and the soundtrack. Very glad for the Primer short afterwards to explain what actually happened!!"

    "what the heck was that about. wish I had done something else with my evening. sorry!!!"

    "Would watch again."

    "Anyway, apart from anything else about Primer, now come no-one ever popped into the library and said ' What are you both doing here/? Why aren't you at work? / I heard you were off sick'

    Enjoyed the intro -thank you Matthew, enjoyed the post-film short and very much liked the longer explanation by Londoncitygirl which was just waiting on the right of the screen to be clicked on. I saw the first half on Sunday which definitely helped for yesterday BUT...didn't like any of the characters, didn't like the fact that the main two weren't really open with each other, kept wondering why the Rachel thing was so important, felt the heart sink when we got to bench scene number 2 as it came to me that there was probably loads of story we hadn't been properly party to...

    Liked the start. Liked the way the garage looked.

    The Emperor's Clothes comes to mind.

    Glad to have seen it - somewhere around 2.5"

    "5/5 for Matthew’s intro and 5/5 for the short film explaining Primer, brilliant and clever!

    As for the film itself, it certainly stretched my brain and I liked the way it was filmed. I found myself googling all sorts of scientific terms so I’ve learnt a lot !

    Having said that, I couldn’t engage with the characters and I found it rather confusing. It did make me think of Bill and Ted’s excellent adventure which was cited as one of the directors inspirations . That I loved dude! 

    3/5 for Primer , I can understand why it is a cult movie and how it would appeal to certain people but not me!"

    "Not enough clues for this old brain and not enough hooks to make me care. But still a valiant effort by the vert small team. A 3 from me."

    "Could definitely see someone (with a bigger budget) remaking this film, as the premise is good.  Certainly have been films with similar puzzling conundrums (Memento and The Butterfly Effect spring to mind).

    Agree that the plot needed filling out in some parts and tightening up in others.

    It was hard to care about the characters.

    The Primer "primer" at the end helped, but not a whole lot!"

    "The idea of the film was interesting. However, there simply wasn't enough cues to let you keep any track of the narrative(s) that were going on.

    For example, Abe waking up early on in the film, the rats in the roof (which you had to remember till the loft ladder scene). Too much to keep a hold of in one head.

    Also some 'holes' - eg even after the post view tutorial I have no idea where Mr Grainger managed to get a copy of the 'box'.

    I think if they had had a larger budget there would have been better editing and hence a better film."


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