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The science fiction film Primer, directed by Shane Carruthers, has always hovered at the edges of my little film bubble. The odd recommendation here, a passing reference in an article there, and of course it has an insidious way of putting its hand up whenever a new time travel movie is released. I heard about it a lot when Upstream Colour came out too – that was an interesting film. To my shame until last night I had never actually done anything about Primer‘s hovering – I had never sat myself down and watched it. It’s a glaring omission that I am glad to have patched up, because Primer thoroughly won me over.

I loved it for its simplicity; which seems counter-intuitive given its complex narrative structure. But Primer is delightfully simple in other ways, which offset, or perhaps lends extra value to the original narrative. Two friends discover time travel; it tears them apart. There’s an open ending which essentially pits the two of them against one another in a race through time. Sounds fancy, right? Yet the film mostly takes place in garages and domestic settings. The characters wear the same bedraggled, after-work attire day after day before day after day before day after …

The two characters in question, Aaron and Abe, are not at all likeable to a common audience. They are ambitious, get-ahead science types, morally unequipped to handle their invention. As characters they are understandable however – and the film is impressive in how it engenders a sense of empathy without validating or glorifying its protagonists. Still, I would hazard that by the film’s end most viewers will have sided with one or the other. Those that aren’t completely befuddled by the time travel narrative, that is.

Because the narrative is kooky. It starts out standard – but as soon as you realise you are watching a time travel narrative, as opposed to a linear film about time travel, if you don’t start cogitating what has become before and what is happening in a different way then the film will leave you floundering. It is imperative to switch gears and stay alert. I would say that the film is reasonably ruthless in its rendition of complex ideas, but patchily so, as some questions and plot points are delivered slowly in standard fashion while others whip by. This makes it even trickier.

Thankfully Primer is a short film at less than 80 minutes long, so it doesn’t feel daunting to return to. Repeat viewings are where the film comes alive. You can understand the film in its entirety in one sitting, but if you aren’t expecting to be challenged, the story will quickly slip away from you. In this way Primer deserves to be commended. It challenges audiences with a legitimately confusing narrative: legitimate because of its premise and subject matter. Time travel is confusing. But if you’ve got the time, it makes sense.