I’d feel a little more confident describing Primer as easily the best science fiction film in god knows how long if only I was sure I fully understood thing fucking one about what goes on in its last 45 minutes. But whether it’s completely coherent in a narrative sense, I’m sure that it is a terrific little film about afterhours industry, tenderfoot genius and, of course, the evil in men’s souls.
Primer is predicated on a pervasive contemporary myth of wealth-making — the one about the pair of engineers holed up evenings and weekends in a suburban garage, working on some eccentric technology project that has the potential to change the face of industry and yield huge capitalist rewards. The garage belongs to Aaron (played by writer-director Shane Carruth), the sort-of leader of a group of young geniuses working on some kind of unspecified proof-of-concept device. Their endless chatter about the points of science involved as well as the consuming quest for venture capital forms an oddly soothing soundbed for the first portion of the film, comprising the brilliant, nearly inscrutable murmurs of ambition. As the project progresses, Aaron and close buddy Abe make headway toward another, more virtuosic goal — a loftier one that they’re not yet willing to clue their buddies into.
That conscious act of duplicity is the first in a scenario that tangles as Abe discovers an unanticipated implication of their research. As their world starts to fold back on itself, Aaron essentially takes control of the strange machine the two of them build, fully grasping its intricacies and exploiting it in ways that reveal a certain ruthlessness in his character.
The closest recent precedent to Primer is Pi, which put an even more grimy aesthetic to use in its yarn about the discovery of a mathematical system for predicting stock-market activity. But whereas Darren Aronofsky folded his hand at the end of that picture, suggesting only that ultimate knowledge will drive you crazy, Carruth thinks it makes you greedy, in both a material and a spiritual sense. Primer gets its currency from the celebrated contemporary stereotype of the wunderkind who parlays boyish genius into zillions of dollars, but the film’s ultimate message dates back to the beginnings of genre storytelling — there are some things man was not meant to know.
Aesthetically, Primer builds a bridge between old-school celluloid and digital filmmaking — it was shot on Super 16, then the images were scanned into a computer and manipulated digitally for output to 35mm film. This is basically the same process that’s been used on mainstream features from Seabiscuit to I, Robot, but here instead of merely intensifying a glossy look, it amplifies the color and grain of what are clearly film elements. One scene that takes place outdoors at night, as the inventors begin to realize they’re in over their heads, is rendered here in images of pure grain rendered against rich darkness, with intense flecks of light dancing across the screen through the black. Elsewhere, the sheer intensity and beauty of color is mesmerizing.
That kind of detail of mood is matched by nuance of character. Carruth seems genuinely interested in Aaron’s status as a human being faced with possibilities drawn from the infinite, and in the casual deviousness he quickly evinces. What of the family Aaron leaves behind, wandering through the background of his life as he sacrifices his hours and days to noble entrepreneurialism? The downbeat Primer could function in part as repudiation of the Close Encounters myth, in which a grown man’s reward for abandoning his wife and children is a fantastic journey beyond space and time.
Primer‘s narrative strategy, in which key story points go without being staged explicitly — or even explained to any viewer’s satisfaction — may be dictated partly by budget, but it’s an effective one, encouraging viewers into the role of inquisitive voyeur, trying to piece together a narrative arc from the tantalizing fragments on the screen. Confused? Maybe that’s the point. When things fall apart, as of course they must in a movie that challenges the very coherence of the universe, the failure of the human conscience to keep up with mathematical cognition is manifest. Eventually, owing to the implication of the loss of identity and the corruption of the spirit as endgame scenarios for this kind of scientific brinksmanship, Primer is more than a dodgy romp through hard SF ideas. In its jumbled cerebral chill, and especially in its ultimate suggestion that the terrible price of selfish ambition is emotional isolation and soullessness, it’s genuinely frightening.