Posted on August 11, 2009 by Bertrand
Be it in the real world or the fiction realm there aren’t that many themes that manage to give me the creeps: it’s not that I am a particularly brave (nor picky) individual, it’s more that I am rather rational and find it difficult to empathize with other people’s irrational feelings: say Carpenter, for example, if immensely enjoyable, isn’t going to give me cold sweats. Of course, there are exceptions like social, psychedelic or metaphysical horror, especially subjects that fiddle with the notion of paradox.
I grabbed Primer in the room of my friend during an afternoon of boredom. After reading the phrase “Donnie Darko for Grown Ups” on the DVD cover, I slipped it in the DVD player. Donnie Darko has always been a mystery for me, as my opinion has conflicted with the opinion of most of my friends. Even though I hadn’t seen it, I thought it was a pointless teenage flick for wannabe intellectuals. Given that I didn’t know what Donnie Darko was about, when I pressed play I had no idea what Primer could be about.
The movie’s story starts a bit slowly; more than few plans follows the cryptic discussions of a group of young physicians working on a small scale experimental project in the garage of one of them. If the proficient use of scientific jargon is a bit intimidating at first, the quality of the script and the acting allow us to imagine behind their ethic or technical disagreements, the tensions and relations between the characters, dull young adults who recently joined the professional world.
This slightly lengthy introduction soon gives way to the main plot itself: in a similarly cryptic fashion, the viewer assists to the discovery of a physical phenomenon which enables some form of time travel. The device they build to experiment with their discovery is a human-sized box whose functioning is rather different from your average time-travel technology. The box needs to be first “activated” through magnetisation and filled with a particular gas. One then leaves the box for about five hours, comes back to it later on and then waits another five hours inside of it. When he gets out of the box, he is back at the moment where he actually activated the device, which was supposedly ten hours ago. This implies that no long term travel is possible, and can only happen from the present to the past. So you won’t find any dinosaurs or cyborgs here.
Shane Carruths excellent script presents characters that are all coherent, clever and easy to relate to: the rest of the film navigates elegantly from an exploration of the decaying relationship between the two main characters, to a psychological depiction of horror, as faced by the heroes when confronted to the paradox of time-travel. The very fact that the scenario, the direction and the acting are low-key and low budget allows the director to focus on the internal drama the characters encounter : time is not a linear concept and the spectator cannot help but being shaken to the bone while watching their evolution, from excitement through doubt and then traveling in the fast lane towards madness.
The analogy with Lovecraft springs naturally to mind when analyzing this unusual breed of fear and unease that is created throughout the movie: the core of the movie is the chilling spectacle of the decay and degradation of Abe (who manages to stay rational) and Aaron (whose collapsing reality leads into his own indulgent and egocentric brand of madness). Half drunk on power, half lost without his certainty; he loses his grip on morality and reality, and becomes increasingly ignorant of the risks of their technology. Aaron’s demise is much like the promises of power and unspeakable sights of the Old Ones had corrupted the mind of Lovecraft’s cultists.
The embodiment of the unspeakable in this movie’s plot is acted by the main characters “doubles.” When traveling into the future, they are exposed to the possibility of meeting themselves in the past. At first both Abe and Aaron are extremely prudent to avoid any such occurrence, and as they highlight in their dialog, the unforeseen consequences could be deadly – or even worse than that. But as Aaron sinks into madness, these tragic events and other forms of unexplainable paradoxes start happening in a more and more threatening fashion, building the intricate storyline into a riveting take of metaphysical horror.
At the end of the day, I guess Primer is not for every one: it’s a low budget, complex, psychological movie which is sometimes border-line pretentious, and sometimes a bit lengthy. You shouldn’t expect mind-blowing special effects, intense action scenes or inside jokes. Primer is for anyone who can get him or herself to follow the complex plot and to appreciate the layering of the subjects. For those movie viewers, Primer is an absolute “must-see.” The horror here is banality coated in strangeness and oddity, bordering the absurd, in the same way as Cube and even The Machinist attempted. The script is perfectly mastered and the low-budget never stopped me from identifying with the characters, but then again I am not the pickiest moviegoer when it comes to production…
Whether you ran out of reading Philip K. Dick or you want to bring something new to your Delta Green game setting, Primer is definitely a good time-travel film.
Review by Bertrand