Techland Screening Room: Primer – The Physics of Friendship

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Every Thursday, the Techland Screening Room digs deep in an attempt to appreciate one of the 50 most important sci-fi titles of cinema’s first century. When we’re not analyzing the films, we’re announcing the next title in the series. We welcome your thoughts, insights, grumblings and epiphanies.

There aren’t many sci-fi films that are smarter, stealthier or every bit as confident as Primer.

This is one of my all-time favorite sci-fi movies, and I think one can tell, from its very first scenes, that this is the work of someone operating outside the conventional circles of Hollywood. Defying so many of the conventions of this – or any – genre, director Shane Carruth drops us into the middle of the action and then dares us to keep pace. And not only with the scene-to-scene details, but the larger implications of what all these events truly mean.

In three of the film’s key scenes listed below, he even refuses to draw the solid connections between what we’re seeing and the larger metaphysical weight of the moment. In this way, it is one of the most trusting film’s I’ve ever encountered, trusting the audience to connect the larger dots. Some might claim that it is being vague or obtuse, in the way it avoids easy explanation and throws a series of monkey wrenches into the plot, but I think the form fits the theme. If you built a time machine and were arrogant enough to assume that you could understand all the implications, no doubt your logic would start to break down at a certain point. Your loops through time would at some point spark an unintended consequence. And no doubt when that happened, you’d fail to grasp the full ramifications. Time for a closer look, as to why Primer is unforgettable:


In a movie that’s oriented almost entirely around two actors – Carruth, as Aaron, and David Sullivan, as Abe – the key to the performances is a kinetic sense of chemistry. Both first-time actors, what Carruth and Sullivan manage to convey – often through impersonal, rapid-fire dialogue – is a clashing of the wills, minds and hearts of two best friends.

There are no close-ups of emoting here, and that’s part of the film’s charm. These are scientists, thinkers and workers, and the drama all plays out amidst their marathon discussions of logic and physics. We can see in their dialogue and their research behavior how the two differ: One more eager to seize power, and the other more impulsive and selfish. One has a family that he doesn’t really want, and the other wants what he doesn’t have.

When this time travel project is working, the friendship gels and allows one friend to compensate for the other, but when mistakes are inevitably made, the camaraderie implodes. The challenge for Carruth and Sullivan is to convey all this in the shorthand of two familiar partners, and within the context of science. It was surely not an easy task, but I think there are numerous points in the story where I found myself surprised by the emotional weight that runs alongside the scientific implications. When the stakes of the science are this large, we come to realize, there is no longer a division between the personal and the business. As these two set about traveling through time to make a buck – and more – business becomes personal. It is all one and the same.

Insider Info:

If Aaron and Abe are two of the more unlikely time travelers, Shane Carruth is one of the most unlikely award winners to ever emerge from Sundance.

A non-professional filmmaker, and former software engineer, who wrote his own script, taught himself how to shoot, made a movie in his parents’ house and was then accepted at the nation’s top film festival, Carruth’s outsider status is decidedly an asset, not a liability. He structures this film in a surprising, and wholly unexpected way, and I would say that it has a more powerful impact precisely because it looks and feels unlike any other film ever made. (continued on next page)

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