Primer – Reviewed

Single Sentence Review: Silicon valley garage startup threatens quantifiable reality.

Primer defies stereotypes, eschewing art house tropes, while proving there’s one sure way to make a great movie: start with the writing.

Primer movie poster

When a geek cohort find themselves accidentally inventing a device in their lab/garage, what they end up with is more powerful and dynamic than any other invention. This device could change everything in their personal lives and possibly guide the future of the entire planet. Through the lens of the characters, the viewer is left pondering tremendous moral quandaries.

The character dynamics, instead of being overexposed for consumption, are subtle, realistic captures of the technically inclined introvert. Abe and Aaron’s geek-bonics infused dialog is refreshingly challenging. So real is their dialog that they often do not wait for the other actor to finish his delivery before launching in to their own speech; just like real people. This was done intentionally and out of necessity as the director could not shoot even one minute over budget. Each scene was practiced over a hundred times until it was flawlessly perfect. Every second of footage shot was used in the film, to great effect.

Primer Trailer

The main characters, in their scientific nature, are stoic, difficult to read, and emote on a level that is perhaps best understood by people who have real world experience with these types of individuals. This is a good thing. You will not feel insulted by this movie. The writer does not assume you to be a simpleton.

Although the initial viewing may feel poorly paced, a subsequent experience reveals that every scene was absolutely intentional. Once you discover what the device is and what it does, you can watch the film again with a clearer understanding of what is really going on. Instead of insulting you with repetitive character jabber, the writer (Shane Carruth, also the director, editor, co-star, effects supervisor and score composer) shares just enough through dialog to see what is going on, but you’ll have to work at it.

Slight Spoilers

Another initial disappointment is the climax to the story, which, in a concession to big budget gen-x-ness, involves a shotgun. It eventually becomes clear that the shotgun was necessary, as an extreme situation was required to force the character’s hands… a primer of sorts.

This is the most intellectually challenging movie I have ever seen. Some events, like when Abe wakes up in his room to the phone ringing and, while talking, decides to fling his shoe at the window shade, only reveal their relevance upon fourth or even fifth viewing. Many movies like Memento, and Donnie Darko, while excellent films, ultimately leave this claim unfulfilled. Even the much better produced and acted film The Usual Suspects polishes all of its jewels by the second viewing.

Scenes are wonderfully filmed. Primer’s lens choices and angles provide the viewer with the emotional insight into the characters, that they themselves, are incapable of displaying. This had the result of making every scene feel like a mini movie, with its own points, conflict and resolution.

Though the plot details are difficult to follow, you are never made to feel as if you’re watching an overly artistic dream sequence. This is established through very solid continuity, explicitly built into the script.

The sound track enhances the miniature movie aspect of each scene. The music, composed by Carruth, is wondrous and captivating. Most importantly, it is not overused.

Let me apologize at this point for not shining even the slightest light on the conceptual framework of the film. A blow for blow plot synopsis could do nothing but ruin its enjoyment.

You will probably want a clean interpretation of the plot. Short of keeping a journal about it you will probably fail. Fear not: entire communities exists to help you along in your understanding1.

Shane Carruth is a hero to creative people. He wrote his script over the course of a year while working at his first calling, being an engineer. He quit his job when the script was done and scrimped by financially while teaching himself how to make movies. Being shot for only $7000 he had to use every foot of celluloid, as he only could shoot one take each. The fact that the film came out so well is a testament to this man’s ability to manifest vision. Primer is a mandatory viewing for any person considering themselves a science fiction film buff.


1 Primer is one of the most critiqued and over exposed movies on the web. If after viewing the movie, you feel like you just didn’t get it , you are not alone. Visit a place like Sparknotes Primer: Understanding The Most Complicated Sci-fi Movie Ever Made page.

Plot: 4
Directing: 5
Cinematography: 4.5
Acting: 4.3
Sound: 4.3
Film Score: 4.4 (Out of 5)
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