Every science fiction movie has a scene where all the gnarly theoretical underpinnings are explained in terms grade-schoolers and their parents can understand. (It's the part where the nuclear physicists go out for more popcorn.) That scene never comes in "Primer"; surprisingly, the film's the better for it.
Shane Carruth's extraordinary work of shoestring speculation throws you into a deep ocean of techno-jargon and lets you dog-paddle or sink like a stone. After a while, you realize the water's fine, even if you understand less than a third of what these people are saying. They do, and that hushed, locked-in intensity becomes the film's dramatic motor.
"Primer" cost $7,000 to make and won the Grand Jury Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival. It's probably the first venture capital suspense thriller. The film unfolds in the bland suburban living rooms and office parks of bright young men trying to reinvent their lives -- I'll warn you now that there are scenes of fund-raising barbecues -- and at first it doesn't matter what Aaron (Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) are trying to brainstorm. They and their colleagues have engineering degrees, good jobs, wives, small children, and all those things are secondary to the machine in the garage that's not working the way they want it to.
When the machine does work, it's in ways none of them expected. The power stays on after being unplugged, for instance, or a widget placed inside comes out covered with a strange green fungus. For a long stretch, "Primer" plays out as a mystery, with Abe and Aaron gradually shutting out their associates and feverishly discussing such things as parabolic loops. We sit there in the dark with them, and the crucial question is never "what does the machine do?" but "what's the application?" They've got that most modern form of hubris, start-up blindness.
Eventually all things become clear, or clearer, and if you want to retain an element of surprise, please don't read any further. "Primer" works best when the fog lifts from the audience's and the characters' eyes at the same instant. This is around the time Aaron realizes they'll need a bigger machine and Abe replies that he has already built one.
So the question then becomes: What would you actually do if you had a working time machine that was able to send you back a day or two? If you're a young entrepreneur, obviously, you'd play the stock market -- but you'd also take care not to run into your earlier self during the day. This would lead to comments such as "I have to take a taxi home, since my double is using the car," or to conundrums like wondering whether a cellphone can ring in two places at once, or -- since this is a mad-scientist movie when all is said and done -- to unchecked paranoia and megalomania.
"Primer" eventually becomes a live-action M.C. Escher drawing of impossible theoretical realities, and while I wish I could tell you it all makes sense, my head hurts every time I try to figure out how. What's impressive -- aside from the fact that Carruth got the thing made in the first place -- is that the movie's tone skates right between coherence and an appreciation for endless, even infinite possibilities. When characters start showing up in the present who could only have been affected by plot twists we'll never know in the future, it's as though time itself was undergoing gusts of feedback.
Incidentally, this is a great way to blow people's minds without spending a dime on special effects.
Aspects of "Primer" are so low-rent as to evoke guffaws -- that time machine really does look like a refrigerator box covered with duct tape -- but the homemade feel is part of the point, and the dialogue and performances burrow deep into the cowboy-geek mentality of Silicon Valley. There's something indelibly sad about these white-collar boys who hope, in Abe's words, "to reverse-engineer the perfect moment" and who never realize how many such moments pass them by each day. "Primer" lets its characters play with time until time runs out.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.
Written and directed by: Shane Carruth
Starring: Carruth, David Sullivan
At: Kendall Square
Running time: 77 minutes
Rated: PG-13 (brief language)