“She thinks they’re rats in the attic”
Behind the scenes is the tale of a mathematician/former software engineer who created a feature film worthy of winning the Grand Jury and Alfred P. Sloan prizes at the Sundance Film Festival. Onscreen it’s one of the finest debuts in cinematic history with an unparalleled intellect and keen sense of time travel’s ultimate effect on human morality and relationships rather than the science alone. For Shane Carruth, Primer was a way to right the wrongs of a Hollywood too quick to gloss over the work for high-tech gadgetry and carefully laid plans by displaying the creative process’ down and dirty reality coupled by its penchant for discovering brilliance in mistake. To those who’ve seen and loved it he made a science fiction masterpiece costing blood, sweat, tears, and seven grand.
That’s right—seven grand. While more was put in on the backend to convert the film stock and ready it for theatrical projection, that initial figure for principle photography is hard to fathom. Writer/director/star/etc. Carruth researched the physics, learned the scientific shorthand to envelope his audience in the action, and let the sheer impossibility of what his leads’ create to allow for its step-by-step explanation from one to the other so we too can fully grasp each intricacy. And then he blows our expectations with parallel timelines, multiple character versions crossing paths, and an airtight plot progression begging for subsequent viewings to catch every minute detail that has or hasn’t been altered by the hubris of these two geniuses. Two well-intentioned men lacking the capacity to handle the power they eventual wield.
It all commences with four friends working as a think tank collective in Aaron’s (Carruth) garage, assisting each other on projects while also manufacturing the JTAG cards that help fund their after hours endeavors so day jobs can pay for everything else. Their newest work unfortunately seems to have hit a wall, though, forcing Robert (Casey Gooden) and Phillip (Anand Upadhyaya) to broach the subject of moving forward on new ideas. Unable to ignore the potential, Aaron and Abe (David Gooden) refuse to quit and finish it on their own and the device eventually stabilizes to the point of successfully reducing the mass of objects placed inside its metallic box shell. Still missing a practical application with which to market it, a bit of extra experimentation soon reveals an unexplainable side effect that changes everything.
Now the fun begins as Abe takes Aaron through the rabbit hole he’s uncovered on a fact-finding mission to identify the mustard-colored substance surrounding the tiny Weeble they’ve been experimenting on. From here Primer deftly traverses its science through visual cues that help us understand without needing the rhetoric dumbed-down. Brief comedic sequences with a catalytic converter and refrigerator put faces to the palladium and copper wiring they need; diagrams are drawn of the parabolic looping that occurs while wristwatches serve as tools to prove objects inside the machine experience about 1300 times the time as outside; and the sense of awe in Aaron’s reaction after seeing Abe walk into a self-storage unit while also remaining beside him speaks for itself. We learn the capabilities of their creation in real time as well as its dangers.
What scientist of worth wouldn’t jump at the chance to discover his invention’s limits? The two start small after becoming experts on the loop—a person can only travel back to the first moment in which the machine was turned on—by spending a complete workday in a hotel researching stock options they can buy and sell hours later when reliving the day. Abe crafts a foolproof plan with a series of “Rules to Follow to Avoid Causality Paradoxes” that keep them unplugged to the real world so they may interact the second go-around. Gradually getting rich can’t compare to the rush accompanying an alteration of empirical history, though. Right? Well, a scary moment of violence at a party they didn’t even originally attend provides the perfect opportunity to find out.
Primer’s carefully constructed, over-exposed and grainy frames now become more chaotic as abstract vignettes of unexplained revelations cut to black. A side effect of traveling manifests as Aaron’s ear begins bleeding profusely; precautions start to get ignored as a cell phone is forgotten and a call originally answered by hotel dwelling Aaron reaches stock trading Aaron the second time around instead; and the paradoxes they feared not only crop up but end up doing so by their own volition. A web of lies replaces what first appeared to be implicit trust and innocuous background details prove much more relevant than ever expected. With the need for control inevitably outweighing collaboration, one man looks to go back and completely prevent their discovery while the other can’t wait to push it further.
Meticulously measured convolution rears its head, but what originally appeared confusing clicks into understanding as the rampant deceit is exposed. Carruth and Sullivan are utterly captivating as true selves are revealed and contrasting moral codes reconciled to prove how neither is any less power-hungry than the other. As a result the film is less a new spin on the time travel trope than a depiction of mankind’s selfish desire to become Gods. Everything Aaron and Abe once coveted turns irrelevant the moment they go far enough back to interfere with doubles unaware of what’s to come. The ramifications of their infinitely repeatable four-day endeavor cannot be quantified and the frightening reality of a final shot showing the potential endgame through the smile of a man beyond reproach is hauntingly brilliant.