Film Reviews: Wednesday, October 6, 2004
Starring Shane Carruth and David Sullivan. Written and directed by Shane Carruth. Rated R.
Jack in the Box

The Dallas-made Primer has some style, but comes up empty in the end.


In the movies, people make scientific breakthroughs on a regular basis. Mostly, itís treated as a mere plot point ó oh, now we can make dinosaurs walk the earth or travel back in time to the 16th century. Now the movie really starts. One of the things that Dallas-based filmmaker Shane Carruth does right in his debut film Primer is create an atmosphere that authentically gives the feeling of what it must be like to be on hand for a startling new discovery. The movie begins with a group of engineers who spend their off hours working on a side project, the same way other groups of co-workers might convene over fantasy football or a rock band. Their project involves a box with wires running through it and a camera inside, and much of the early dialogue is heavily laced with scientific jargon so that weíre not sure what these techies are trying to do. One late night, two of them, Aaron (played by Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan), notice some weird readings coming from whateverís inside the box. They take note of these, think about them over take-out dinner, do some more tests, and think some more. The realization of what their box has managed to do slowly dawns on them, and Carruth, drawing on his experience as a former engineer, infuses the moment with a genuine sense of wonder.

The box, it turns out, bends the space-time continuum in such a way that Aaron and Abe can travel back in time a few hours by entering and exiting the box at the right instant. However, this process creates doubles of themselves, because theyíre existing in different moments simultaneously. The movie won the top prize at this yearís Sundance Film Festival, probably because it deals seriously with the ethical implications of this situation, playing to the venerable tradition of science fiction thatís primarily about ideas. This makes it different enough to avoid comparisons with Harold Ramisí 1996 comedy Multiplicity (Aaron and Abe never directly contact their clones and only see them from afar). Unfortunately, this movie doesnít offer much more entertainment value than Ramisí limp farce.

Carruth does give the movie an austere yet stylish look, making good use of the locations of Richardsonís sterile office parks (not that the office parks anywhere else are any less sterile) and restricting his charactersí wardrobes to white shirts and black ties. His creative camera angles give rise to some distinctive compositions, and his sense of pacing gives the film a gathering sense of dread.

He knows how to tease us, but he canít deliver the payoff. The tension dissipates weakly amid the incoherence in the movieís final third. The incident that shatters Aaron and Abeís experiment involves a party and a jealous ex-boyfriend with a gun. And I couldnít tell what happened. Nor could my fellow film critics, whom I consulted in case Iíd overlooked something. If you see this film and can come up with a viable explanation, let me know. Even if you canít, youíll see in Shane Carruth a new talent who may one day make something truly memorable. Primer could have been that movie, but unhappily, it isnít.

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