FILM (2004)

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 July, 2012, 12:00am


Shane Carruth, David Sullivan, Casey Gooden
Director: Shane Carruth

'Rewards repeated listening' is a phrase seen in pretty much every third album review. For this micro-budget indie science-fiction film - with the accent on 'science' - we need to tickle the cliche: 'requires repeated viewing'.

Shane Carruth's Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner has been bending brains since its release, becoming a cult classic in a small but worthy genre: 'mind-bending movies'. Mainstream rivals - think Memento, Inception - seem simple in comparison.

Engineers Abe (David Sullivan) and Aaron (Carruth) supplement their income by selling homemade error-checking devices, while trying to come up with the big invention that will secure venture capital. This leads to the creation of a machine that allows users to travel short distances back in time. 'We can publish!' is their first reaction, quickly giving way to 'we can make a killing on the stock market'.

Close attention is required from the start: writer-director-actor-everything else Carruth refuses to dumb down the tech jargon and characters talk rapidly over each other; when the causality-bending, multiple-timeline-creating, paradox-invoking fun begins, things get really confusing.

We won't go into it in detail ... uh ... spoilers. No, we could definitely explain it if we wanted to ... oh, okay. 'Frankly, anybody who claims he fully understands what's going on in Primer after seeing it just once is either a savant or a liar,' Esquire's reviewer wrote in 2004. Having seen it more than once, we remain honest non-savants.

With dialogue such as 'I haven't eaten since later this afternoon' it's no surprise blogs have used gigabytes trying to explain it. Most just add layers of bewilderment, notably the incomprehensible diagrams of multiple timelines parodied as a toddler's scribble in webcomic XKCD.

Strangely, for all this sounds like homework, Primer remains enjoyable. Like many of David Lynch's films, you don't have to fully understand it to appreciate it. But while the likes of Mulholland Drive are built on their own dream logic, Primer is built on hard science - we think, anyway.

Part of the appeal is that of any puzzle, and one gets the 'tip-of-my-brain' feeling of a problem whose answer is just too elusive. Its theme - the accidents and ethics of scientific discovery - is so well represented getting lost doesn't really matter.

Nearly all the credit goes to Carruth, literally. A frustrated engineer with a maths degree, he decided filmmaking was what he should be doing and set about teaching himself cinematography, screenwriting, score composing, direction, lighting and so on. Yet the film - with a ridiculous US$7,000 budget - doesn't look amateurish.

Carruth is a 'time travel consultant' on forthcoming action film Looper, and is working on his next feature, A Topiary, of which little is known - but a little physics revision won't do any harm.