Two friends, who perform scientific experiments as a hobby, accidentally discover a means of time travel.
If anybody has read The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, you will know the workings of the Time Traveller’s time machine is never properly technically explained. The Time Traveller loosely explains his theory about time being a 4th dimension, pulls a lever on his time machine and is able to time travel forwards and backwards. That’s as scientific as the story gets. From a storytelling approach, like the exposition of the Frog DNA being the key to cloning dinosaurs from Jurassic Park, it’s important to give enough story information so the audience can suspend their disbelief but not too much or risk the logic collapsing itself.
Primer challenges this idea. Shane Carruth’s storytelling approach, much like his two main characters, is equally experimental. The realistic way he’s chosen to present the science is noteworthy. Is it more realistic than The Time Traveller pulling a lever to travel back in time? No. Because the science again is never explained in full detail. It’s the feeling of realism and science that’s put onto the story that makes it feel realistic. Many scientific discoveries in the past have been accidental and Primer puts the audience inside that drama through its two scientists Aaron and Abe. The technical jargon-heavy dialogue is probably as close to not having any exposition in a film ever. The effect is jarring because we don’t know what they’re talking about exactly. However, it refocuses on Aaron and Abe’s emotional reactions and that’s where Primer grabbed me. I believed that they were scientists and experienced their excitement and awe of their accidental discovery. I was on the edge of my seat, waiting to see what will happen next.
I’m glad I didn’t see Primer in theaters, as the last 20 minutes of the film really test your brain power as an audience member. The story shifts into 4th gear and crescendoes into a finale. I had to rewind the last 20 minutes and rewatch it a few times to understand what was going on. For that Primer loses some points in my book because the film assumes that it’s okay for the audience to be lost in Primer, it accomplishes that for the first two thirds. Whether an audience member follows along the last third of the film will ultimately justifies Carruth’s story experiment. For me, it proves that as non-cinematic as it is filling your story with exposition, it is still a critical component to storytelling.
That said, I applaud Carruth’s experimental exposition-less approach to storytelling. I believe the completed film is 100% what Shane Carruth set out to make and the fact that he achieved his vision for 7000 U.S. dollars is impressive to me.