With its dense techno-babble, skeezy-looking hi-def photography and nearly incomprehensible plot, Primer looks like a low-budget disaster that shouldn't be shown in someone's basement, let alone a real theatre.
But wait. This flick has plenty going for it. You just have to be patient. And it probably helps if you read science fiction, which enables you to "get" the weird goings-on. Or at least most of them.
Primer opens with four computer guys working on some new project in Aaron's (writer-director Shane Carruth) garage. The first reel is deliberately off-putting, with all sorts of talk-much of it overlapping in Altmanesque mode-about Tesla coils, freon and other arcane engineering stuff. But then Aaron and Abe (David Sullivan) begin experimenting on their own, and after several weird occurrences, discover that what they've managed to come up with is a time machine. It's big, it's bulky, and it only allows you to go back and forth for a very limited period, but that's what it is: an inter-dimensional portal into the time stream.
Oh, and there's one other thing. Because the machine acts as some sort of Mobius strip between past and future, it also creates a "double" in the other dimension. And it's really important that these doppelgangers never meet.
So far, so good. Like all good 21st-century yuppies, Aaron and Ben first think about how they can make money off the device. So they buy stock in a company they know is going to go through the roof, and discuss how to make a fortune betting on basketball games during March Madness.
But then things start going off track-as does the movie. It appears someone they know may be onto their secret, and has created his own machine, with disastrous results. There's a subplot about going back in time to alter a disastrous future involving a friend's party and a maniac with a shotgun. And then, and then…Say wha? The last five minutes of Primer are basically impenetrable, having something to do with alternate realities, the breakup of the partnership, and who knows what else.
The ending is unfortunate, because for the most part this Sundance Grand Prize winner is a stimulating ride. It's well-directed and acted by its non-professional cast, and in tone is reminiscent of the creepy feel of The Blair Witch Project. Other influences? Well, Chris Marker's brilliant time-traveling short La Jete certainly comes to mind.
But one wonders what audience will spark to Primer. Ultimately, it's too smart, too weird and way too inscrutable for its own good.