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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Primer is not a work that’s trying to pay tribute, or mold itself after its predecessors. It is content being what it is: The brilliant product of one visionary outsider who wrangled up an $11,000 shooting budget and won the top award at Sundance based less on production finesse than the sheer audacity of his ideas. The sad story comes after Sundance, when the film was given only a marginal theatrical release that yielded little revenue, leaving Carruth with almost no momentum to use in developing his next project.

We spoke to Carruth about Primer and its aftermath via phone just a couple days ago, and we’ll post the full interview next week. For now, all you need to know: There’s definitely another Carruth project in the works. And it sounds every bit as unusual, and unique, as his first film.

Top Ten Scenes:

1:29 – The opening narration (and there’s some debate as to who’s providing this narration) sets the stage not only for the epic dimensions of the story, but for the white-collar, uber-intellectual work ethic that will define its main characters. I actually think the latter is a rather powerful theme in the film; that the human mind, working in conjunction with others and operating at full throttle, can accomplish the impossible.

Introducing us to the group, the narrator intones: “Some of this you know,” and then offers up a summary of their pursuits that is at once bold and chilly: “They took from their surroundings what was needed and made of it something more.” Talk about economy of dialogue; we are only minutes in and we already have some sense of this morally-conflicted group of above-average inventors. (Also note during that opening sequence: How far away Aaron’s wife is, how she is continuously blocked out in the frame by Abe, and how her noise interrupts the conversation that we’re straining to listen to, in hopes of keeping up with. Carruth, the director, is already setting up the family vs. friendship vs. science conflicts to come)

9:04 – The weeks pass in the workshop. This is such a minor moment in the film, but when I find myself thinking back to Primer, my mind’s eye invariably return to this musical montage – the image of four men, working into the wee hours, framed by the garage that they have crammed with their tools and gizmos. Not only a wise shift in tone by Carruth, taking us out of the rapid-fire sci-fi dialogue with some mellow music that allows us to fully contemplate what their work ethic says about this quartet, this sequence also suggests the significant number of experiments that are playing out in that garage. When Aaron and Abe later tap into something groundbreaking, it’s not a fluke; we know they’ve earned it.

11:33 – The mystery metallic box is turned on. Which is interesting enough in its own right, given that the viewer really doesn’t know what’s going on. But I love the way that Carruth takes the time to frame this as an experiment of the most guerilla variety (see the full clip below). Hoses are plugged in, little Weebles are dropped in, and a video camera is placed inside by two grown kids giddy at the prospect of seeing what their contraption will do. There’s a real sense of discovery here, as they look at the video monitor, unsure of what to expect.

I realize that I’m listing a lot of scenes here in the early moments, but it’s these early events that render the later surprises credible. This first test of the machine is integral, in making the machine a believable contraption. And yet most important is the way the experiment goes down: Aaron is eager to jump in, Abe screams at him to wait so he can check all the connections. All of the character development and twists to come begins in that very interaction.

20:20 – The film’s narrative grinds to a halt. Discussions of experiments and venture capital and patents break down as a genuinely spooked Abe talks to a skeptical Aaron, asking if he can show him something. It’s here where the duo first starts to understand that their box represents something slightly beyond their comprehension. It’s also the first time we see that earpiece in Aaron’s ear. For a guy who doesn’t seem to care much about sports, it immediately seems a little odd that he’s listening to a sports game (and note that he can’t tell Abe who is winning). And then there’s the line of dialogue that points to Primer’s larger concerns: “If you ditch work this afternoon and promise to do the few small things I ask of you, I will in return show you the most important thing that any living organism has ever witnessed.”

25:40 – The clock goes in the box. It’s clear that Abe understands something profound about this box, and he frantically tries to explain it all to Aaron, asking his friend to replicate his digital watch experiment. Aaron’s struggling; so are we. But as Aaron thinks the experiment through, drawing out the system on a piece of paper, and as we see a wristwatch being dropped in to the mix and emerging with a different time, time travel is made plausible, rational, logical, and mind-blowing. There have been plenty of time travel films involving people and elaborate contraptions, but this digital wristwatch in a metal box stirred more chills in me than any of those fantastical visions of wormholes and light speed. (continued on next page)

Video: Is Time Travel possible? We investigate; watch here.

29:10 – The single most shocking image of the film. Abe prepares Aaron for a sight that will blow his mind. A copy of Abe is already running around Earth, and after Abe (version 1.0) hands Aaron a pair of binoculars, he starts to realize that this experiment has jumped the shark. The life-size version of their machine has already been built, time travel is already happening, and Abe has just seen a copy of himself without destroying the space-time continuum. More than that: It’s clear that this friendship has already broken down. Abe’s moved forward alone, without Aaron’s consent, and is clearly using the machine for his own purposes.

33:00 – Aaron’s first day of time traveling. “What about the lottery?” they ask. These guys are looking to use their technology to make a quick buck, and Aaron demands that Abe walk through everything he did in his first time travel experience. So, true to what we’ve seen in earlier scenes, Abe spells it out linearly and logically, and we start to witness one of the most convincing depictions of how a time traveler could do it all: Get rich, defy the laws of physics, all the while remaining active in his present life and avoiding the destruction of the universe.

51:10 – The plan cracks. After growing closer through their time travel, and mastering their little one-day arc of unplugging from the grid and venturing into the past, Aaron’s cell phone rings. He has brought it with him by mistake. They debate as to whether their copies are in the box, or if they might pick up the phone call instead. This is their first major, lazy mistake.

56:10 – Greed, and breakdown. Aaron’s awoken in the middle of the night by Abe, and they debate adding an additional early-morning time travel shift to their daily routine. Greed is leading them to act irrational. And as they pull away from the house in the car, they catch a fleeting glimpse of someone parked out in front of Aaron’s hosue. Someone who shouldn’t be there. Who starts following them. Who was clean-shaven just a few hours ago, but who now has several days’ worth of stubble on his face.

Who is this, and why does this matter? I don’t think we are supposed to be able to fully answer this question. (though there is one Primer fan out there who has constructed an elaborate flow-chart, following the logic) It’s not the particulars that are important, but the larger conclusion: Something has broken down in this system. Someone is tracking them. Someone is traveling through time just as they are. Their orderly, logical framework has collapsed.

73:00 – The shattering of the dream. We see in a final montage just how dysfunctional the whole system’s become. Copies of Abe are running around, locked in closets and attics. Aaron is no longer certain what’s part of his time travel system and what’s not. The two men meet at an airport, and the friendship implodes in front of our eyes. They part ways. And then we see a feverish Aaron leading what looks like a crew of South American workers through a warehouse, in the midst of construction. What is he building? (Carruth told us what he thinks is happening, but I don’t think we’re really supposed to know) He is now free of his wife, child and best friend. And I think this is exactly where he wants to be.

Closing Thoughts:

Primer is dubbed by many as a story about time travel. But I think it’s a story about focus, discovery and tragedy. It’s about the work that goes into creating and understanding something new, the thrill of basking in the glory of being the first in the world to conquer the unconquerable, and then the fallout that occurs when a friendship falls apart.

It’s this dimension of friendship and trust, however, that instills the film with something more than just scientific hypotheticals. Primer is really about two smart collaborators teaming up on the biggest project of their lives, and then struggling to reconcile the fact that they attained their goal, but lost each other in the process. Emotionally, it’s not all that different from something like Goodfellas, where a bunch guys scale the heights and lose their conscience in the process. But in Primer, we have the story being told through an original formula, using a different sort of language, and the stakes are far bigger than who shot who, or what mob guys got made.

The power of the time machine may drive half the film, but it’s the emotional fallout the propels the latter half. And that’s why Primer is more than just the theoretical; it is the theory put into practice, the ultimate power that tugs at the core of an unshakable friendship. There is trust here and promises are made, but then the ultimate power on the planet scrambles up all those allegiances, vows and commitments. Primer offers the rush of a sci-fi adventure and then the heartache of a lost love affair. And it’s the emotions, not the physics jargon, that makes this a great movie.

Now – it’s your turn: Post your comments! What do you think of Primer? What are your favorite scenes? What flaws do you see in my argument? What say you?

Techland’s interview with Shane Carruth will be posted next week. See where the movie stacked up on our Five Most Underrated Sci-Fi Movie Masterpieces. Return next Thursday for the next Techland Screening Room title.

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