This week’s Netflix Pick of the Week is the 2004 time travel movie Primer, directed by Shane Carruth, produced by Shane Carruth, edited by Shane Carruth, music by Shane Carruth and starring – you guessed it – Shane Carruth. The remaining cast of this entirely self-funded project, made for a measly $7000, is comprised mostly of Carruth’s family and friends. But, although the low budget is certainly noticeable, this film is a far cry from watching someone’s home video. In fact, Primer took home the prestigious Grand Jury Prize for a dramatic film at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival.
Primer is, without a doubt, the most realistic time travel movie ever created. It’s also one of the most confusing movies you’ll ever see. One of the biggest strengths of the movie is how incredibly realistic it is, an adjective seldom used to describe sci-fi films, which helps it appeal to those who are typically not sci-fi fans. The film begins by introducing two engineers who, in addition to working normal day jobs, develop technology products in their garage. They aren’t attempting to invent time travel, but accidentally stumble upon it. Eventually, they turn their discovery into a time machine. It works differently from machines in most time travel movies; they cannot simply pick a point in time and instantaneously teleport to it. Instead, when they turn on the machine at time A, they must wait a given length of time before getting into the machine. When they get into the machine at time B, they lie in the machine as they travel backwards through time, back to time A when the machine was originally turned on.
This does not only add to the realism of the movie, as it provides an answer to the classic question, “If we do ever invent time travel, wouldn’t someone have come and told us about it yet?” It also creates a complex story with multiple versions of the same character in existence at one time. By doing this, Primer raises some of the biggest concerns that would come along with the actual discovery of time travel. The characters suffer from mysterious medical symptoms as a result of their time travel and grapplewith the morality of their actions. Primer does not operate under the idea that there are alternate space time continuums, like Back to the Future, but instead that there is just one universe, but multiple versions of yourself can exist within it. Because of this, the characters risk creating doubles of themselves each time they engage in time travel. By the end of the story, the viewer is faced with such a complex timeline that there are multiple websites and even a Sparknotes page dedicated to trying to untangle it all. A positive yet challenging aspect of Primer is that the viewer is never exactly sure how many times the characters on screen have been through this moment before. Because of this, Primer is the perfect movie to watch with a friend or two, since you will certainly feel the need to discuss what on earth just happened.
The film’s low budget and lack of any Hollywood influence is both what makes it stand out and what places limitations upon the film. The dialogue is much more like what actual engineers might sound like and less like how people in a movie would talk, as little additional explanation is offered to the viewer. Because of this, it can be helpful to turn on subtitles to more easily follow along. Additionally, the film most certainly would have benefitted from having enough money to use better special effects and add about 20 extra minutes of run time. However, Primer is certainly a worthwhile watch despite these shortcomings because it is unparalleled amongst time travel movies in its intelligence and creativity.