Wednesday 25 February 2009

Primer (2004)

Director: Shane Carruth
Stars: Shane Carruth and David Sullivan

The film that knocked me out the most over the last year was a science fiction film, but not one you're likely to have heard of. It won't ever get shown on the Sci-Fi Channel because it has no spaceships, no laser beams, no superheroes. It was a film called The Man from Earth and it posed the age old science fiction question of 'what if?' to a group of characters in a room. It was absolutely fascinating and it stunned me. Beyond the questions posed within the film itself, one question followed in its wake: why doesn't anyone else make this sort of film: pure science fiction not space opera? Well, this one has similarities and it's nearly as fascinating.

We're following four friends or colleagues or whatever they call themselves. They're technical folks working in technical jobs, but they dedicate a large amount of their spare time to building contraptions in a garage, with the aim of making money as entrepreneurs who have built something important. The catch, naturally, is that they need to build something important. What they end up with is something that's undoubtably important but also very hard to fathom. It's some sort of time machine, though it isn't immediately apparent exactly what and how and why, but really it's a MacGuffin.

What it is doesn't really matter because it's not really about the machine, it's about what the machine means. If you have a shortcut through the standard progression of life and you can safely and conveniently cheat to get whatever you want, what do you do? How much do you run with the thrill and how much do you fear the unknown danger. How much do you worry about the paradoxes and how deep into the logic maelstrom do you go? What do you do with knowledge you don't necessarily want? Who do you trust with the knowledge you do?

There are many many questions that leap out of the screen here and bludgeon us. I'm not going to pretend that I understood all the permutations, because it's definitely something to watch again and again to work it all out. I had a lot of reactions. Firstly, I was overjoyed to see another pure science fiction film. Secondly, i was confused and fascinated all at once as I tried to fathom the story. Thirdly, I was shocked to find that the film was made for only $7,000 and won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.

Now, I've read a fascinating book by movie critic Joe Queenan called The Unkindest Cut: How a Hatchet-Man Critic Made His Own $7,000 Movie and Put It All on His Credit Card, so I have a healthy doubt in any quoted figures about how much a film cost, but I also know that that book is over a decade old and the world has changed considerably during that time. However much Primer cost, it's undoubtedly cleverly done and it undoubtedly looks a lot more slick than the budget could ever suggest.

The few people who made it juggled roles on screen and off and produced a very realistic set of characters. This is one of the most realistic non-glossy ensemble casts I think I'ver seen: nobody is a Hollywood actor for sure but nobody is a community theatre actor either. They all appear to be what they're supposed to be: professional people with a technical bent who are often both clever and naive. I don't get it all yet but I'm fascinated and intrigued and eager to return to the film again soon.

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