Great Films You Need To See – Primer (2004)

We’ve all wished at least once in our lives for the opportunity to go back and do things differently.

Shane Carruth's Primer

Shane Carruth’s Primer – “a film that puts the science into science fiction and is quite possibly the last word in time travel”

We have to contend ourselves with the fact that hindsight  is all we have, but in the movies where anything is possible, that wish can be fulfilled.

The gift that keeps on giving when put in the right hands, time travel has provided the backdrop to lots of great motion pictures over the years, most recently Rian Johnson’s action flick Looper.

Movies like Looper and the Back to the Future and Terminator franchises use the concept of time travel as the springboard to a popcorn-fuelled rollercoaster ride. On the flip side we have Shane Carruth’s serious, occasionally impenetrable but always absorbing Primer, a film that puts the science into science fiction and is quite possibly the last word in time travel.

The mode of time travel used in Primer (pic taken from the film's Wikipedia page)

The mode of time travel used in Primer (pic taken from the film’s Wikipedia page)

Made for just $7,000 and released to award-winning acclaim at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, Carruth’s debut feature remains as much of an enigma today as it did when it first left critics and moviegoers scratching their heads almost 10 years ago.

At its heart a cautionary tale about the dangers of possessing ingenuity and an insatiable curiosity, Primer concerns itself with Aaron (Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan), white-collar engineers by day and amateur inventors by night who stumble on a means of time travel.

Aaron (Shane Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) with their time travel boxes in Primer

Aaron (Shane Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) with their time travel boxes in Primer

Primer is as far removed from big budget bombast as you can get. Aaron and Abe work from a suburban garage, while the device itself is nothing more than a box (no DeLoreans here), hidden away in a self storage lock-up. Carruth frequently shoots his characters in long shot, as if he’s eavesdropping on their rapid-fire, tech-heavy dialogue and this is reflected in the actions of Aaron and Abe, who coolly observe events around them from a safe distance.

Described by Abe as “the most important thing that any living organism has ever witnessed”, the pair are nervous at first, unsure of how best to proceed with their momentous invention. However, it doesn’t take long before greed and ambition take over and their “reverse engineering” of the past gets out of control.

Aaron (Shane Carruth) can't quite believe who he's warching in Primer

Aaron (Shane Carruth) can’t quite believe who he’s watching in Primer

The film’s tagline – ‘what happens if it actually works?’ – speaks to Carruth’s documentary-style approach while the decision to film on grainy 16mm, financial constraints not withstanding (this was before digital had become all-pervasive), lends a matter-of-fact realism.

The director (who also wrote, produced, edited and wrote the music for the film) cleverly shows how even the extraordinary can become routine with lines such as “Are you hungry? I haven’t eaten until later this afternoon”, and “I think my body’s getting used to the 36-hour days”.

Aaron (Shane Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) wonder where to go next in Primer

Aaron (Shane Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) wonder where to go next in Primer

Primer‘s cerebral, scientific approach to time travel will certainly infuriate many and leave most others discombobulated. Carruth makes no concessions to his audience and what little action there is centres on the two tech heads talking excitedly among themselves whilst tweaking a large metal box.

That being said, like most time travel films it largely avoids dealing with the thorny issues of causality and paradox (Looper, for example, jokingly shrugs it off by having Bruce Willis’ Old Joe Simmons refusing to talk about it to his younger self (Joseph Gordon Levitt) because they’d end up spending hours “drawing diagrams with straws”). Aaron refers to the age-old question of whether you’d exist if you went back in time and killed your mother before shrugging it off and stating that “it has to work itself out somehow”.

Primer is a¬† fascinating puzzle that expects you to keep up (the final 20 minutes are almost maddening in their complexity). Those looking for crazy-haired scientists, killer robots or cool time machines are barking up the wrong tree here, but give yourself in to Carruth’s unique vision and it’s sure to stick in the mind long into the future.

Review – Safety Not Guaranteed

Looking to fill a blank space in the September 1997 edition of Backwoods Home Magazine, employee John Silveira wrote a pithy classified ad as a joke.

Safety Not Guaranteed

Safety Not Guaranteed – “there’s enough heart here to earn a smile come the closing credits”

The ad stated: “Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. P.O. Box 91 Ocean View, WA 99393. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before”.

Little did Silveira know that his throwaway paragraph would prove the inspiration for the low-budget Safety Not Guaranteed, a comedy-drama equal parts whimsical and melancholic from the mumblecore stable of American independents.

Disconnected and disillusioned Darius (Aubrey Plaza) interns at a Seattle magazine and volunteers with fellow staffer Arnau (Karan Soni) to assist writer Jeff (Jake Johnson) in tracking down the ad’s author in a sleepy seaside town. This turns out to be Kenneth (mumblecore alumnus Mark Duplass), an eccentric and paranoid supermarket employee who deals in conspiracy theories and is convinced secret agents are out to get him.

She poses as an applicant with her own reasons to want to travel back in time and wins the trust of the slightly obsessed, but kind-hearted loner, who sees in Darius a kindred spirit and someone who’s not afraid “to stare fear and danger in the eye and say ‘yes'”.

Darius at first indulges the child-like Kenneth’s plan to build a time machine, believing it to be nothing more than a fantasy, but as they spend more time together she finds herself increasingly attracted to the fellow misfit and starts to wonder if what he’s claiming is actually the real deal.

Darius (Aubrey Plaza) and Kenneth (Mark Duplass) in Safety Not Guaranteed

Darius (Aubrey Plaza) and Kenneth (Mark Duplass) in Safety Not Guaranteed

Safety Not Guaranteed brings to mind the offbeat 1980 film Somewhere In Time, in which Christopher Reeve’s writer becomes so obsessed with a picture of an actress (played by Jane Seymour) that he travels back in time to 1912 to be with her.

Memory, in particular the desire to recapture and revisit a specific moment in time, is a prominent motif throughout the film. Darius, who has resigned herself to simply “expect the worst and try not to get my hopes up”, would rather return to when life was easier and made more sense.

According to Kenneth, the whole point of building his time machine is to prevent a tragic event from occurring, although as he lets slip to Darius, it’s actually more “about a time and a place” when he believes he was happiest.

Darius (Aubrey Plaza), Arnau (Karan Soni) and Jeff (Jake Johnson) try to track down the mysterious author of an unconventional ad in Safety Not Guaranteed

Darius (Aubrey Plaza), Arnau (Karan Soni) and Jeff (Jake Johnson) try to track down the mysterious author of an unconventional ad in Safety Not Guaranteed

The melancholic yearning for younger, less complicated days is also present in the character of Jeff, who uses the assignment to look up his first love, whom he has reminisced about and wondered ‘what if?’ for years. He also urges Arnau not to waste his youth and, in scenes reminiscent of Roger Dodger prises the young intern away from his laptop to introduce him to the world of girls.

Director Colin Trevorrow gives the film a lightness of touch that dilutes the sadness of Derek Connolly’s script. Duplass, who has made a career out of directing inward-looking adults with arrested development excels as Kenneth, bringing the right mix of oddball innocence to the role.

Plaza (from TV’s Parks and Recreation) has the face-slapped-with-a-wet-fish look down to a tee, but finds an endearing sweetness in her scenes with Duplass. Indeed, the moments when the two are training for their ‘mission’ are the highlights of the film.

Whether you buy the ending largely depends on how invested you are in the characters. Trevorrow for one tries his best to sell it, as do the cast, and while it doesn’t entirely convince there’s enough heart here to earn a smile come the closing credits.