Winner of the Sundance Grand Jury Prize, Shane Carruth's "Primer" is one of those movies that's legendary on impact thanks to its felicitous combination of ingenuity, independence and dirt-cheapness. First-time writer-director Carruth himself has described the movie's budget as the rough equivalent of "the price of a used car," a phrase that will resonate with anyone who's ever perused the how-to-make-an-indie-film section at their local Barnes & Noble. Everybody loves a bargain. Plus, some ticket buyers will no doubt be looking for an educational experience -- they'll want a primer on what a movie can be on limited means, and they'll get one.
"Primer" is the incredibly confusing but oddly compelling story of Aaron (Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan), two young computer engineers who spend their off hours trying to develop a killer app in Aaron's garage with two other engineers, Robert (Casey Gooden) and Phillip (Anand Upadhyaya). The makeshift company is run like a democracy; each person gets a turn at deciding what project to work on. But the relationship between Abe and Aaron and the other two is starting to fray.
While working on a jerry-built superconductormajiggy that he and Aaron have cobbled together from various bits of car and refrigerator, Abe stumbles upon a peculiar side-effect: The box doubles as a time machine. Soon, he and Aaron have built one to human scale and have secretly started taking quick jaunts back in time.
From here, the story hinges on two conceits, that: (a) the machine can only take you back as far back as it's been running -- usually about six hours; and (b) that going back so recently in time while staying in the same place pretty much guarantees that you'll run into an earlier version of yourself.
Written and directed in a similarly enterprising spirit by Carruth, formerly a laid-off engineer, "Primer" was shot, among other places, in his parents' Dallas garage. (Mom and Dad also provided food.) He was inspired by '70s conspiracy thrillers and chose to forgo digital video in favor of the more old-school Super 16, which he then blew up to 35mm. The resulting look is flat and washed out, with a color palette ranging from sand to beige. It's the perfect look for depicting the dry, middle-American nowhereland the characters inhabit, and it wonderfully conveys the slightly desperate, Habitrail life of the young engineers -- who have only about a decade and a half to hit the big time or be put out to pasture at 40.
In keeping with the movies that inspired him -- "The Conversation," "All the President's Men" -- Carruth has constructed a narrative in which most of the action takes place off screen and most of what we see are two characters trying to figure out what's going on. The characters seem to exist both in a narrative loop and in a spiral of exponentially increasing parallel lives. Things quickly get out of control, plot-wise, and it becomes impossible to distinguish between past and present characters. For reasons I can't explain, some of their "doubles" turn out to be evil -- a lot can change, apparently, in an afternoon.
I'll refrain from trying to piece together the mechanics of the plot, which I suspect on some level is completely incoherent. I'll just say that "Primer" is the kind of movie that thrills at its own casual impenetrability.
But then, this may be the most interesting thing about "Primer," which couldn't be more different from the classic time-travel movie if it tried. Its characters aren't transported so much as they are constantly reset. Plans are set in motion, then go nowhere. Sticklers for linear storytelling are bound to be frustrated by narrative threads that start promisingly, then just sort of fall off the spool. But frustrating as I ultimately found it, "Primer" is undeniably geek heaven. For everyone else, it's a nice antidote to big-budget bogusness. When a movie as far-fetched as "Primer" comes across as refreshingly naturalistic -- well, that's something.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for brief language
Times guidelines: Squeaky clean, but young children will be bored by the all-talk, no-action.
A ThinkFilm release. Writer-director-producer Shane Carruth. Location sound Reggie Evans. Camera operators Anand Upadhyaya, Daniel Bueche. Assistant camera operator James Russell. Production assistant David Sullivan. Running Time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.
Exclusively at the Landmark Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., L.A. (310) 281-8223. Filmmaker Shane Carruth will participate in a discussion after the 7:30 and 9:40 p.m. screenings today and Saturday.