NY TIMES MOVIE REVIEW | 'PRIMER'
By A. O. SCOTT
Shane Carruth's "Primer," a debut feature shot on 16-millimeter for a budget of around $7,000, is an ingenious movie about the perils of ingenuity. Two would-be inventors, Abe and Aaron, working after hours in their suburban garage, stumble onto an invention whose application is not obvious at first but whose ethical and metaphysical implications quickly become enormous. Abe (David Sullivan) describes it to Aaron as "the most important thing that any living organism has ever witnessed," which may be a slight exaggeration. To call the gizmo a time machine, which it more or less is, would be to create a slightly misleading impression, evoking splashy Hollywood confections like the "Terminator" and "Back to the Future" franchises, which "Primer" does not resemble in the least.
The film is, technically speaking, science fiction, but of an unusually rigorous and unassuming kind. Mr. Carruth, a math major in college who worked as an engineer before teaching himself filmmaking, has an impressive feel for the odd, quiet rhythms of small-scale research and development. His script captures the way these young scientists express themselves and takes note of how their intimate, competitive collaboration works in fits and starts and sideways leaps.
"They were meticulous; they were intelligent," an opening voice-over says, and Mr. Carruth, exhibiting both qualities, assumes that the audience shares them enough to keep up with the intricacies of his narrative and with the logical permutations of his premise. This is a lot to ask — the storytelling is oblique, at times to the point of vagueness — but the effort is invigorating. Like "Pi" or "Memento" (speculative brain teasers to which this has an obvious kinship), "Primer" is the kind of movie likely to inspire both imitators and cultists. I know of one critic who has already seen it at least five times at various festivals, and part of the attraction is the tantalizing belief that if you see it enough, you will finally figure it all out.
I'm not sure of that. Having seen it twice from start to finish and gone back over the videotape in search of clues to its meaning, I wouldn't say that it entirely makes sense. At a certain point, Mr. Carruth's fondness for complexity and indirection crosses the line between ambiguity and opacity, but I hasten to add that my bafflement is colored by admiration. Mr. Carruth has the skill, the guile and the seriousness to turn a creaky philosophical gimmick into a dense and troubling moral puzzle.
I don't want to give too much away — and I certainly don't want to embarrass myself by getting it wrong — but Abe and Aaron's attempt to control their experiment starts to go awry. Their ambitions are at first modest and shallow: they will use the time-travel boxes, which produce temporary doubles of the two men, to make money in stock-market day trading. But soon the temptation to mess with the order of things starts to work on them, especially Aaron, or maybe one of his doubles, and the story takes a shadowy, mysterious turn, deftly evoked by dimming lights and eerie music.
"Primer" is likely to turn viewers into versions of Abe and Aaron: it makes you want to sit down and draw charts and propose equations. Whether these will add up to anything more than a cerebral diversion is hard to say. Mr. Carruth has invented something fascinating — a way of capturing, on film, some of the pleasure and peril of scientific inquiry — and you don't need a time machine to predict that as he goes on, he will discover exciting new ways to put it to use.
Engineer, Screenwriter, Producer, Director,
Actor of the Film " Primer 2004 "