Thoughts On: Primer - Complex Small-Scale Sci-Fi


Primer - Complex Small-Scale Sci-Fi

Thoughts On: Primer (2004)

This is the last film of the...

A pair of garage scientists stumble upon the discovery of time travel.

Made for $7,000, with a crew of 5 and with Shane Carruth serving as producer, writer, director, cinematographer, actor, composer and editor, Primer is about as independent and low-budget as movies can get. With or without this taken into consideration, Primer is an overwhelmingly impressive film. By embracing its sometimes grimy, sometimes homely, always simple locations, Carruth then captures a pretty professional aesthetic that is backed up by solid acting and a brilliant script.

On the note of the script, I have to raise my hands in submission; I won't pretend that I fully understand this movie - and this is certainly one that not everyone will appreciate, but quite a few will after a few re-watches. However, Primer isn't impossible to follow along as you don't need to understand all the scientific allusions and every detail of this hugely convoluted plot. Carruth has been quite clear with intentions with this movie. Not only did he want to realistically portray what it is like to make a scientific discovery, but chose to focus on the implications of said discovery on a relationship. In such, not understanding the science of this movie is apart of our characters' journey as well as an inevitability of being an outsider looking in. And this only allows us to concentrate on the conflict that develops between Aaron and Abe, leaving this to be a humanising story of two men confronting unfathomable ideas of the future and chance.

Beyond much of this, Primer was a hugely inspiring movie to me when I first came across it. This is because science fiction has almost always been a complex and high-budget form of filmmaking. One of the first grand and hugely popular sci-fi fantasy films was A Trip To The Moon from 1902, and it had an unusually (for that time) large budget. Another great piece of sci-fi cinema that bookended the silent era was then Fritz Lang's 1927 film Metropolis, which, when it first came out, was the most expensive film ever made in Germany. Throughout the 40s, 50s and 60s, American sci-fi films were sometimes high-budgeted, but usually had more humble budgets - often as B pictures or monster movies. But, as we moved into the modern age with ever bettering technology, sci-fi epics rose to domination through films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Planet Of The Apes movies. It was then, of course, Star Wars that was one of the first major, and most significant, New Hollywood era epic sci-fi films. Proceeding this, the 80s were rife with films such as Blade Runner, Back To The Future, Aliens, Terminator, Tron and E.T. Transitioning into the 90s we had Jurassic Park, more from the Terminator series, Independence Day and The Matrix. And now in the contemporary period, sci-fi fantasy completely rules in the form of the superhero movies alongside films such as Inception, Arrival, Interstellar, The Martian, Avatar, The Planet of The Ape series, Mad Max and Star Trek.

You will always find examples of low-budget sci-fi films - especially from the 60s onwards - but, there are few I know of that have an impact like Primer, or that will be discussed in the same conversation as all of the mentioned films. What this movie then inspired within me was not so much the idea that anyone could make movies, rather, that sci-fi could exist in alternate forms to what we classically perceive it to be. What Carruth then does with Primer is show science fiction realistically and with a focus on the complex implications that scientific endeavours present individuals and societies. Primer can then be perceived as the 1954 Godzilla of modern science fiction. Though it was produced and made in Japan, if we compare Godzilla to other popular films produced in 1954, we can recognise just how modest its budget was. On The Water Front: $910,000. Rear Window: $2 million. Sabrina: $58 million. Godzilla: $175,000 (USD). Despite this relatively small budget, Godzilla transcends its genre and the box office with the complexity and layers of its story - and Primer has done the same thing in a far more intense manner. Consider the best films of 2004 and their budgets. The Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind: $20 million. Kill Bill vol. 2: $30 million. The Incredibles: $92 million. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: $130 million. Spider-Man 2: $200 million. Primer: $7,000.

Primer, in my view, is undoubtedly the most impressive film to come out in its year, and with the micro-budget that it used to create such an immense and intricate story, the film seems to be a miracle of sorts. The most interesting point of comparison would of course be The Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. Its budget is relatively modest, and it is a complex film, but the statement that Eternal Sunshine represents in comparison to Primer is almost unsubstantial. Primer seems to say that the heart of sci-fi, that being the projection of philosophy through the lens of the natural and technological world, can be so much more than epic in scale; it can be reservedly staggering in its most dormant and realist of states. And this is why Primer has remained such an inspiring film to me.

However, these are just my thoughts. What do you think of Primer? And how has this movie impacted you?

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