posted by Jason Kottke   May 31, 2005

You think you know what?s going on in this (very**) indie film, you?ve caught yourself up, and then Primer just throws another curve ball at you. Even without the time twisting stuff, the complete lack of flashing arrows (Steven Johnson?s term for the plot clues embedded in movies and TV shows that scream ?pay attention, this will be important later!?) left me scratching my head at exactly what happened. Luckily, the Internet to the rescue: a Primer timeline, another timeline, and an extensive visual timeline. Oy, I still don?t get it.

But that?s ok because the science fictiony stuff was actually not as interesting for me as what happened to the characters in the film. I?ve been thinking a lot about choice lately?too much of it, not enough of it, the sudden increase in the ability to determine one?s destiny by controlling choice, and the ?normal? state of things where people have very little choice about anything. In Primer, the main characters find themselves in a situation where they can (almost) literally do anything they want with their lives. But instead of opening their lives up to an infinite range of possibilities, they find themselves constrained by their circumstances.

There?s a fractal aspect to human existance in this way?the particular details of any one person?s life may differ from those of another (older, smarter, richer, more powerful, etc. etc.), but the experience from the perspective of each individual is largely the same. Robert Frank touches on this in his essay on How Not to Buy Happiness. Having more power/money/control/experience/etc just may limit your choices as sure as being broke, stupid, powerless, or naive would.

Anyway, if you?re even a little bit of a geek, I?d urge you to check Primer out (it was recently released on DVD). It?s challenging in the way that Memento and Donnie Darko are, pays off in a human way like The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind does, and it gets my highest recommendation.

** Ebert correctly notes that although the film cost ~$7000 to make and that most of the principle photography took place in a garage, ?the movie never looks cheap, because every shot looks as it must look.? One of my favorite aspects of the film was the cinematography?reminded me of what a Kubrick film might have looked like on a similarly tight budget.

Reader comments

dmMay 31, 2005 at 11:07AM

In the end (and after multiple viewings and visits to the primermovie message board) the only element that is really, really confusing is the Thomas Granger element. Probably because it’s meant to be, but still.

Great movie, though, and having lived in Addison I noticed quite a few places I’ve been to and thought “man this would be a great location for a movie scene”.

JohnOMay 31, 2005 at 11:15AM

I must agree, Primer is an excellent movie. I recently had the pleasure of scrounging around blockbuster for something we hadn’t seen and stumbling on it. It was absolutely amazing, it is definitely a “thinker’s movie”, much more so than Eternal Sunshine, or Memento, and slightly more so than Donnie Darko. Consequence? or Conspiracy?, those four movies all rate high on my favorites. If you like any of those three, you’ll like this movie (sorry for the movie-pundit sound-bite). I felt I had the storyline under control, though those timelines will be interesting to read (don’t read them unless you see the movie)

Brandon MartusMay 31, 2005 at 11:27AM

Awesome. I just bought it used on Amazon. I loved “Eternal Sunshine …”, “Donnie Darko” and “Memento”.

R J KeefeMay 31, 2005 at 11:38AM

May I ask? I just called the Video Room and asked to rent this film. The clerk didn’t understand me. How many people are pronouncing the title as if it were the goop that goes on the wall before the paint?

Maybe I ought to wait to see the film - maybe “primmer” is history. (Or, even more weirdly, the British pronunciation has taken over.)

tienMay 31, 2005 at 11:38AM

and that ending…quite excellent.

john beelerMay 31, 2005 at 11:50AM

Interesting article with the writer/director on his spirituality.

DaraghMay 31, 2005 at 11:54AM

This film’s sheer difference from the Hollywood norm made me really excited, which I think is something very valuable an autodidact industry outsider brings - it shows up a lot of our assumptions about what films need to be. However, I still feel that the first act was wasted and along with the intentional plot twists, there were some unintended confusing moments which could have been solved by a first act that properly introduced characters rather than mystifying the audience with jargon.

(And just as a sort of disclaimer for people trying to make a film look this good for $7,000, that was the cost to shoot it, not including processing - which would have to cost another, I dunno, $20,000 right there, depending on shooting ratio?)

Rumsey TaylorMay 31, 2005 at 12:05PM

I was blown away by this film, and will say somewhat hesitantly that it’s one of the best pure science-fiction films I’ve ever seen (a small party that contains La Jetée and 2001). I watched it three times within a few days - once with Carruth’s commentary, and once after having perused its fans’ sometimes conflicting interpretations on the film’s website messageboard - and my fondness for this film has only grown. For what it’s worth: my extended thoughts on Primer.

CraniacMay 31, 2005 at 12:24PM

I think they paid 100,000 to have a print made, or perhaps that was 40,000. And the director spent two years editing it for free, so there’s another 150k in the real world. Nevertheless, I think it’s fair to say that this guy wins the “Garage Kubrick” award, a reference to William Gibson’s wired article predicting this movie.

Garage Kubrick

CraniacMay 31, 2005 at 12:25PM


KatieMay 31, 2005 at 1:31PM

Thank you! I have never actually heard of this movie, but it sounds interesting, and as I loved Donnie Darko, Eternal Sunshine, and Memento, it sounds like something I’d want to see.

EricMay 31, 2005 at 2:39PM

I had no idea what was going on throughout the entire movie, but found it compelling enough to watch it all the way til the end. I don’t know why, maybe my ego just didn’t want to admit I couldn’t get it. I even paused it halfway through to talk and figure out what exactly was happening, and while my friend tried to explain it and seemed fairly convincing that she knew what was going on, I remained almost completely lost.

My conclusion is that the deliberate choice to not explain a single thing was purely to seperate the people with quick, analytical minds from the people who will be forced to feel like idiots. Memento may have had a twist, and Donnie Darko may have been a bit odd, but neither have anything on Primer when it comes to “smarter than thou” moviemaking.

Chester BlazeMay 31, 2005 at 3:21PM

that movie was great for being a low budget austin flick with little intrigue. If I could even bring myself to watch it again maybe I would appreciate it more.

daveMay 31, 2005 at 3:22PM

Wow, just finished watching it five minutes ago and started poking around on the internet, your timing is impeccable. I hadn’t read anything about it yet but it had been recommended by a few people who just said that I had to see it. I’ll probably need to watch it again before I write anything about it. Although not in the same super-indie vein, I watched A Very Long Engagement last night and would highly recommend it. Jean-Pierre Jeunet also did Amelie, his work looks pretty amazing visually.

Kunal AnandMay 31, 2005 at 3:33PM

Awesome - I just snagged a copy from Amazon (used your referrer). Thanks for the picks!

HillaryMay 31, 2005 at 4:42PM

My conclusion is that the deliberate choice to not explain a single thing was purely to seperate the people with quick, analytical minds from the people who will be forced to feel like idiots.

Or it was to make the film seem artier and more profound than it really is. I don’t mind obscurity, but I think this has rather too much left out. i.e., I’m not sure there’s enough information included to construct your own narrative, which you can do with _Memento_ and _Donnie Darko_ and much else of the type.

flashMay 31, 2005 at 6:04PM

Or it was to make the film seem artier and more profound than it really is. I don’t mind obscurity, but I think this has rather too much left out.

I have to disagree, with some careful thought and some talking with friends that I saw the movie with, we were able to piece together the timelines. I like movies that make me have to think and don’t had it to me on a silver platter, I find them refreshing. I do agree that “requires thought” can be taken too far, Primer is not there.

Donnie JeterJun 01, 2005 at 3:09AM

Girlfriend thinks we’re watching watching “In Good Company…”
totally renting “Primer” instead - she’ll never see it coming!

KristinJun 01, 2005 at 9:11PM

I can’t remember where, but I read about this film and had it on my Netflix list months before it became available on DVD. There were many ‘complaints’ under the customer reviews for this film on Netflix, which I found hilarious. Someone said that this movie is proof why only Hollywood can make movies! Ha, ha!

To me, this whole movie is proof why Hollywood CAN’T make original, compelling movies. They are scared to take a risk. To make an intellectually-challenging film. I liked that I walked away from my first viewing of “Primer” with a lot of confusion and some unanswered questions.

Watching for a second time with my husband, I had a grand time discussing plot points with him and possibilities. That is what a good movie should do…make you think, make you work a bit. Not just film fodder for the half-awake mind.

JohnJun 02, 2005 at 12:51AM

I’m sorry if this takes some of the wind out of all of your exuberant sails, but I’m the target market — a geek, lover of “thinker films” (Memento is one of my all-time faves), scifi buff — yet I found this movie totally boring and uninspiring.

I didn’t mind that the plot didn’t try to explain itself, it just made me eager to put the pieces together at the end. But here’s the thing. No matter how perfectly and poetically the climax of a movie (or any narrative for that matter) wraps things up, you still have to get there, and the getting there has to be good for the whole thing to be good. Memento’s “getting there,” for example, was brilliantly acted, beautifully shot, and masterfully directed. I totally respect Ebert’s opinions but I don’t get how he could say this movie doesn’t look cheap. It’s shot on video and has all the aesthetic shortcomings of video (blown whites in particular). And the acting is so obviously forced, esp. through the opening scenes, that I wondered if these guys had ever acted in anything before.

Anyhoo, just a little shocked that you rated it 100 out of 100. I mean come on, it’s as perfect as a film could be?

danboarderJun 02, 2005 at 1:27AM

John, regarding your comment - Primer was shot on Super 16mm, not ‘video’, and was “intentionally over-exposed look that pays homage to Carruth’s favorites from the 1970s…” [from the movie web site].

HillaryJun 02, 2005 at 9:29AM

That is what a good movie should do…make you think, make you work a bit. Not just film fodder for the half-awake mind.

Look. Nuh duh. But there’s ground in between deliberately incomprehensible and deliberately overexpository. You, as a director, have to throw me some kind of bone to keep me engaged and make me think it’s worth the extra work to interpret what you’re showing me. I don’t think this film does that well enough.

felixJun 02, 2005 at 9:57AM

This movie is way over rated. The movie sounds good on paper - a low budget, clever, realistic movie about time travel. But the execution is very disappointing.

Granted it looks fairly good considering the budget, but thats probably more a comment on how cheap digital filmmaking technology is right now.

Yes the plot is incredibly hard to follow, but does this make it a good movie? I think not. The characters are no-personality cyphers. The drama is contrived, motivations are unclear. At the end I was thinking ‘was that it’?

Steven RomejJun 02, 2005 at 1:15PM

This movie must be buried in the long tail; no rental chain in my current backwoods location carries it. Not sure it’s worth owning.

CraniacJun 02, 2005 at 5:17PM

Yeah, I hit a wall and had no idea what was going on for a while, but I watched it alone. Perhaps its strength comes from doing the post-game show.

brentJun 02, 2005 at 5:43PM

In the end (and after multiple viewings and visits to the primermovie message board) the only element that is really, really confusing is the Thomas Granger element. Probably because it’s meant to be, but still.

Abe told Granger about the box, who then went and used it. Abe then decides to reset beacause of this and uses the failsafe box.

I enjoyed the movie. I didn’t think it was that hard to follow, but I knew it was a challenging movie going in and paused the movie a lot to think about what was happening before moving on with it.

brentJun 02, 2005 at 5:53PM

I should add that the reason Granger is in a vegatative state is because since Abe and Aaron stumble upon the Granger that used the box, it changed their future realities, and thus Abe never ends up telling Granger about the box, so there is a paradox happening. The state Granger is in is how the director chose to deal with paradoxes in the movie.

PeterJun 03, 2005 at 10:52AM

I saw this at the Tornto Film Festival last year and at the time I thought I got it. Now, looking at those timelines, I’m not so sure. I’m glad to see it’s available on DVD now, I’d love to see it again.

LeroyJun 03, 2005 at 2:35PM

The visual timeline is by far the best. Although I think the gun incident at the party was clearly what caused Aaron to first use the failsafe. I’m also not sure what evidence they’re basing their Granger theory on (they seem certain he got out of the box too early). I think the whole point of that is scene is to turn the tables on the main characters. Now they’re the ones in the dark, they have no idea what happened in the other timeline that Granger changed. That scares them so they use the failsafe. One of my favorite movies in recent memory.

the english guyJun 09, 2005 at 10:45AM

$7000?! That’s hard to believe! I thought the movie was complicated and sometimes confusing but all in all, entertaining and riveting. After a couple of times going back to check on the time line, it was clear and cleverly filmed (IMHO).

Stephen DownesJun 13, 2005 at 1:18PM

It only cost $7000 to make, then why does it still cost $20 to buy a copy?

This thread is closed to new comments. Thanks to everyone who responded.