Movie Review
Primer
2004
Director: Shane Carruth
Cast: Shane Carruth, David Sullivan
F


aaron and Abe live and work in an anonymous technoburb—it could be King of Prussia, PA or Reston, VA—any homogenous setting with standardized tract housing developments, modular post-industrial office campuses, and bland roads-to-nowhere. When not leading their workaday lives, both men, along with some co-workers, comprise an entrepreneurial team, slaving long nights on various engineering projects in the hopes of taking something to market. After an argument about which project seems most likely to bear fruit, the group splinters, and we follow Aaron and Abe down a capitalistic rabbit hole when they build a device with unknown (and possibly unknowable) potential.


Hard at work on Love Potion #9


Their discovery begins what should be a story of Dostoyevsky-esque ethics with its concomitant paranoia, intrigue, and betrayal. Instead, the result could best be characterized as pornography for engineering students at Lehigh University. Abe and Aaron function as amoral suburban ciphers, which proceed to unravel the possibilities contained within their invention. Like the empty-headed students who prefer the tech and business classes to the humanities and social sciences, we discover that the daily lives of two would-be technocrats are empty and unexamined. Like Bad Will Huntings we watch listlessly as both men first carve their friendly partners out of any future deals, when they discover that their invention allows them to manipulate time, and thus granting them the freedom to be in two places simultaneously. What ensues is a gradual demonstration of the ultimate banality of evil. As art imitates life (Carruth had been an engineer by training), we see the world through the eyes of two vapid, everyday whitehats, hell-bent on capitalizing their creation—never once broaching the trite, but tried-and-true “what if this technology falls into the wrong hands?”—neither man soliciting the viewer’s sympathy or bile enough to care what happens, nor mustering the sufficient introspection to contemplate their own motives.

Nowhere nearly as sophisticated as other stories that play with conventional narrative structure, Primer seeks to manipulate the audience’s sense of time and memory, but fails to communicate why anyone should be interested. The central discovery, too, is almost secondary; on its own, the contraption is nothing more than a novelty that happens to have magical properties. Unlike Memento and Irreversible, where linear narrative is either turned upside-down or flung like scatter plot points, resulting in works that sadistically imprison or challenge the viewer, Primer fools the audience into believing that what they’re seeing is an unconventional mode of storytelling, when in fact we follow the main characters from beginning to end, with no interruptions or flashbacks, the stories that lie beyond the central narrative, ignoring altogether their doppelgangers’ unpredictable behavior. As an existential meditation, it fails to convey the agony of quotidian idleness; as a commentary on the creative process, we’re never stunned by the failures because there are none: the story simply unfolds before us. Its lone success is creating an underdeveloped iterative tale, and Abe and Aaron are sci-fi Michael Keatons in this low-budget, humorless Multiplicity, or stars in punchless, never-before-seen television commercials.


Taking out the trash this late at night is spooky...


Abe and Aaron accomplish everything they aim to do, that is, invent something with tremendous market potential, and an equal if not greater potential for immediate personal gain. Everything remains at the material level, the discussion of anything larger than themselves is humorous, and dismissed out of hand as quaint, their interests reaching a level somewhere between the closed door conversations in In the Company of Men and the splooge-fest inanity of Chuck & Buck, never brooking Office Space’s heady realizations: they talk in maths. The unexplored capacity of their invention is diminished by an imaginative failure on the part of the inventors: what would you do with a device that could command millions of dollars on the open market? Would you choose something as crass as cornering NYSE? But it’s the externalities that cause the collateral damage when their experiment takes on its own life, their Selves living autonomously, rendering Abe and Aaron’s identities meaningless, and no amount of careful planning will result in normalcy.

The possibility of time travel remains a fascinating subject, as does the reproduction of Self. From films as sophisticated as Being John Malkovich, to those as chilling as Pi, to those as accessible as Groundhog Day, complex issues such as being and time to the division of labor in society are either explicitly or tacitly addressed with varying success, themes that reach far into an understanding of human nature. If Primer sets out to explicate the complications of pure-contingency-as-existential-drama, then they should have consulted Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or the Back to the Future trilogy first. Those stories, though perhaps trivial, held within them some promise, either through Marty McFly’s redemption to Joel’s enduring social bond in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. But there’s nothing to hold onto here, and even less to hope for.



By: J T. Ramsay
Published on: 2004-10-29
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