Obscure films you need to see #2: Primer (2004)


Let’s face it: most times, making a film great requires money. Very few people in this world possess the know-how and inventiveness to genuinely be able to use a small budget to their advantage. Thankfully, there are some. Director/screenwriter/editor/composer Shane Carruth is one of them.

Primer tells the story of two enterpreneurs who spend their days engineering equipment for the scientific and medical fields. The pay isn’t great, and the financial risks involved place the job firmly in the “for the brave and inventive only” bracket. That’s only the surface of things, though – in reality, there’s something much more ambitious and potentially dangerous (not to mention potentially lucrative) going on in the garage-turned-engineering-facility.

There, the two young inventors are working on a device that, if it works, will have a major impact on the modern world. Should it work, the device they’re building will disrupt the time-space continuum, effectively making it a small time machine of sorts (though not the kind you usually see in films where the protagonist uses a huge spaceship-looking contraption to travel to the 19th century). Once they feel the device is ready enough for the first experiment, it’s time to try it. The film follows the unexpected effects of these experiments, so I won’t give away the plot any further.

Primer has such an intense mood, and the actors do such an amazing job that the viewer is almost completely fooled into thinking that this might actually work in real life. Carruth has enough of a grasp of physics to be able to throw in enough pseudo-science to add to the believability of the story, and the small-scale nature of the goings-on add to the audience’s ability to empathize with the characters.

The overarching theme of the film, however, is not really time travel in and of itself. More than that, the film examines the unholy union between the human mind (and human nature) and unlimited power over other people and circumstances.  The characters in the film are not bad people – they’re just people, with flaws and weaknesses. The film seems to ask: “Is it possible for even basically good people to be able to keep a handle on themselves if presented with an opportunity for absolute control?”

The narrative of the film is extremely complex – be warned. The structure of the film reflects the mindset of the two protagonists: what they have discovered is complex and unpredictable, and the information is fragmented and difficult to put together into a cohesive framework. You will feel the same way in watching the film, and that’s the point. Primer is a prime example (pun intended) of a film that stays with you for a long time.

Science is a wonderful tool if used for the betterment of the Earth, but simply making scientific progress without regard for ethical considerations (as those who view science almost as a religion tend to think it should be done) will lead us down a very, very dark path. Personally, I’m hopeful that there are laws of nature yet uncovered that will take effect if the darker side of the human brain gets too close to discoveries we’re not mature enough as a species to handle.

Time shall tell and we shall know. One day.

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