*Photo Credit: 2004 New Line Cinema
The science fiction genre is among the most grossly expensive genres in Hollywood. For instance, the recent sci-fi flop Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017) was produced on a stomach-churning $177,200,000 budget, according to iMDb. Seeing as the film failed to make a tenth of that on its opening weekend (iMDb), the modern condition of cinematic sci-fi shows that throwing money at a project isn’t going to make a good film. For further evidence, just look to Jupiter Ascending, the 2015 outing from The Wachowskis, directors of The Matrix. The film had a comparable $176,000,000 budget, barely broke even, and garnered near universal critical scorn. This list of similar science fiction productions, unfortunately, goes on.
Of course, that reality should have already been quite evident due to the legendary success of Primer (2004), a film made of a measly $7,000 budget. No, that is not a typo; Director Shane Carruth’s directorial debut was made so cheaply that the crew had to ration film during production. The success of a film whose entire budget would be insufficient to cater a week of filming for a Hollywood blockbuster is an incredible story, and it adds an extra layer of wonder to the overall greatness of Primer.
The star of the film is Shane Carruth, who, in addition to playing the main character, is the director, composer, producer, editor, and writer. Truly a one-man show, Carruth’s feat is made even more impressive given his background is in mathematics rather than film.
So far, all I’ve talked about are the crazy circumstances under which this film was made. However, none of this should take away from the brilliance of Primer, which stands as one of the best cult classics of the new millennium.
The plot centers around Aaron (Carruth) and his friend/business partner Abe (David Sullivan), two broke engineers trying to invent a useful cash cow for themselves and their families. Working out of Aaron’s garage, the duo stumble across a bizarre side effect of the new machine that they’ve built: the machine creates a time-loop, or, essentially, a time machine. Abe then secretly creates a full-size machine of his own, which he uses and then reveals to Aaron.
Once Aaron learns of the box, he and Abe begin arguing over how to properly use this mysterious power. Abe is content to use the box to conservatively manipulate stock trading, but Aaron’s aspirations are far greater. However, after a time-travel related incident, Abe becomes convinced that the experiment must be stopped from the beginning, while Aaron is adamantly against Abe’s efforts. As a result, Aaron and Abe continually use the machine and subsequent “failsafe boxes” in a cycle that further deteriorates the timeline beyond the comprehension of both the characters and the audience.
The timeline of Primer is fascinatingly complex, but it is nearly impossible to fully understand, especially upon first viewing. The viewer finds themselves very confused, mirroring the anxious confusion of the main characters. For people who dislike nonlinear narratives, this film will make you angry. But if you enjoy such films, like Inception (2010), Memento (2000), or Project Almanac (2015; check out my review here), this film is the final boss: the most philosophically stimulating use of time travel in cinematic history.
If it weren’t for Director Carruth’s ability as a writer, this film would be an absolute trainwreck. Thankfully, Carruth uses a mathematician’s thoroughness in every aspect of the film. Even the extreme budget constraints were used to add meaning to the film. The lighting and filming materials that he chose optimize the film’s lo-fi presentation, which furthers the feeling that the film is operating in distorted and damaged chronology.
As opposed to many modern sci-fi spectacles, which drive out meaning and nuance with over-the-top special effects that can discomfort viewers, Primer revolves completely around the philosophical consequences of its plot. Many people find the bizarre worlds of sci-fi films to be confusing and off-putting, but with Primer, everything is set in a convincing reality. While sci-fi buffs have plenty of reasons to enjoy this film, everyone can equally expect for their minds to be blown, from the layman to the art-house aficionado.
Maybe the success of Primer can be wholly attributed to the obsessive devotion of a genius like Carruth. Maybe the only reason it works is that having too many creative leaders would have rent this project asunder, while Carruth’s unified vision was the key to succeeding at a task this ambitious. Maybe the youthful exuberance and hope that Carruth and his few colleagues held while creating this film were the sources of Primer’s excellence. I believe that all of these are true, culminating in one of the greatest sci-fi films of all time. This isn’t to say that big budgets and big actors automatically doom a sci-fi film, but I am asserting that the key to science fiction lies not in the bank, but in the mind.
Wagner’s Watch-worthiness: 9/10