The Anti-Blockbusters: Primer

By | July 5, 2018

We are in the midst of Summer Blockbuster season (see our rundown at this link), but in case you would like a respite from the mega-dollar, CGI-overload films, here’s a look at some genre entries from the past decade or so that delivered great movies without relying on a big-budget or excessive special effects.

Rating: 4 ½ out of 5 Stars

Bottom Line: Primer delivers a time travel film that sticks to its rules and emerges as a damn good science fiction entry.

Time Travel presents many problems when used as a story device in science fiction and fantasy tales. The implications of the impact that a time traveler could have on past, present, and future events are potentially earth-shattering, yet this is often poorly handling by television shows, movies, and sometimes even books dealing with the subject. Too often, writers use time travel simply as a contrivance to carry the story forward and rarely care about establishing rules or logic involving temporal activities, or if they do, rarely follow them. Primer, an independent film that came out in 2004, bucked this trend, though, and presented a well thought out story addressing the possibility and moral implications of time travel.  And it did so for the cost of coffee and donuts for one day on the set of the typical Hollywood Blockbuster.

The film starts with two inventors tinkering around in the evenings in their garage with various ideas they hope to patent and sell. They accidentally stumble upon a process that appears to bend time and they start to investigate it further which leads to their successful attempts to travel back in time. At first, their time travel excursions are mostly harmless, traveling back a few hours and buying stocks that they know will rise in price later in the day. But then they start using their time travel apparatus to try and go back and change events that have already occurred. When things do not turn out the way they planned, they try again and eventually find themselves caught in a seemingly endless cycle of struggling to correct their own mishaps.

This movie was written by first-time filmmaker Shane Carruth who is a mathematician and an engineer. He gives us a plausible, scientific explanation for time travel which the two inventors (one played by himself) discovered by accident as a by-product of a completely separate experiment. He also presents some of the moral quandaries associated with time travel, but he does it in a very subtle way. At first the two inventors just want to use it make money in the stock market which they will then put back into their after-hours business ventures. A morally questionable action, but one with limited impact. However, when they start trying to change the past, they find themselves unable to deal with the grander consequences of their actions and also find themselves dragged into a seemingly endless downward spiral.

Unfortunately, the movie does become a bit muddled toward the end, but at least it does not completely derail or descend into the typical Blockbuster film anti-logic with its time travel antics. Carruth made this film on a microscopic budget of $7,000, but it does not show. It has almost no special effects, but neither does it need them. It draws in the viewer with its sense of invention and discovery at first and then with the time travel quandaries that start to develop as the two inventors find their reality spinning out of control . The script is definitely dense and at times tedious, perhaps even obtuse. But rather than losing the viewer because of this, it produces a desire to re-watch the film to see what you missed the previous time. And this one definitely stands up to multiple viewings. For an intelligent, well made science fiction movie dealing with time travel (and there are very few of those) this one definitely stands the test of time (sorry couldn’t resist). It may have been made by a first-time filmmaker on a micro budget, but the film holds its own when placed next to many of the better science fiction movies from the major studios.

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