“Have You Scene?” is a recurring column where I skip the big-name movies and instead explore the movies that might have flown under your radar.
Time travel movies should be easy to watch. Theoretically, there is a built-in audience. Who hasn’t wished they could travel through time? Sure, there are time paradoxes, inconsistencies, and continuity issues. Scenes constantly repeat themselves with barely perceptible changes. But when the rules can be made on the fly and the movies are entertaining, who notices something unimportant like reality? Movie history is filled with beloved time travel movies. The Back to the Future trilogy, Bill and Ted movies, and 12 Monkeys are just a few examples.
Time travel movies should be easy to make. There is even a formula for anyone interested in making a time travel film. Outlandish characters, a fantastic time travel machine, amazing special effects, and a plot that is hard to follow but is fully explained by one of the movie’s characters before things get too out of hand. Mix all the above ingredients together and baby, you’ve got a time traveling stew going! Then, there is 2004’s Primer.
Primer is the story of Aaron and Abe, two engineers who spend their free time researching and developing inventions. While working on a new device, Aaron and Abe discover they have accidentally invented a time machine. Primer sounds like it is going to be your run of the mill time travel movie, but it becomes something very different.
Primer never takes the easy route. The script, written by Shane Carruth, who also plays Aaron and is the director and editor of the film, is more like a college science paper than it is a traditional screenplay. Primer is full of scientific jargon that goes largely unexplained, resisting typical exposition-filled scenes. In other time travel movies, the characters speak confidentially about what is happening. In Primer, Carruth writes his characters as intelligent men who also realize they are in over their heads. This adds a sense of realism not normally seen in science fiction movies.
Primer also looks different than any other time travel film. Primer eschews big special effects and gigantic sets. Instead of a sports car, the time travel machine is essentially a box. There are no futuristic cityscapes or flashes of multicolored light. Primer is shot with an almost documentarian feel. We are not so much watching another sci-fi movie as a scientific study. Despite being shot on a budget of less than $10,000, the realistic feel of the film comes across as more of a stylistic choice than a budgetary one.
The question is, does it work? Primer does a lot right. The lack of direct explanation by the characters adds a sense of discovery to Primer. As the movie unfolds, the audience feels like they are discovering things along with the characters. Primer gives the clues while we discover the answers. Aaron and Abe also come across as two normal guys. The audience may not understand everything they are saying, but the two are still relatable. The realistic direction also adds to the film. Special effects are an important part of any time travel movie, but they require a suspension of disbelief. Primer doesn’t rely on special effects, making believing it much easier.
The question is, does it work? Primer does a lot wrong. Time travel films require explanation. While it is refreshing to see a new take on the genre, the good feeling becomes lost when the audience does not understand what is happening. There comes a point in Primer where the sense of discovery is replaced by confusion and uncertainty. There is nothing wrong with a movie that refuses to put the puzzle together for you. There is something wrong when the movie makes you wonder if it even gave you the right pieces. Primer also relies on a number of twists in order to explain why it makes sense. For a movie built on technical terms and logic, typical movie twists come off as unfair and lazy. There is also Aaron and Abe. The two engineers may be relatable, but they are not likable. Some of this is due to plot, but the rest falls on the actors. Primer is basically a two man show. Neither Carruth nor David Sullivan (Abe) have the acting ability to carry the film. Both men come off as aloof and uninteresting. (To be fair, Primer is both men’s first film.)
The decision to shoot the film with a more realistic touch is not without its problems. The documentary look of the film almost takes away from the scope of what the audience is watching. Whether the time traveler uses a telephone booth or a hot tub, whether they are a teenager or a Terminator, time travel movies are fun. Aside from its time traveling aspect, Primer has no sense of adventure. There are also many shots that suffer from a lack of imagination. For example, as Aaron and Abe talk about the possibility that time is circular, Aaron continually spins a basketball around his body. The effect of this sweeping shot is lost when it is repeated two more times-once in the same scene! (To be fair, Primer is Carruth’s directorial debut.)
Time travel movies should be easy to review. Primer is not. It’s hard to understand, hard to describe, and hard to watch. Primer presents a story that looks plain and forsakes a fast paced plot. While an interesting take on a familiar story, Primer lacks the inherent sense of fun found in time travel movies. It’s thought provoking and original, but its reliance on being ordinary prevent it from being extraordinary.