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'Primer': A Closed Book

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 15, 2004; Page WE33

SAY IT LOUD: I'm stupid and I'm proud. Maybe that's not true -- feel free to disagree -- but watching "Primer," a head-scratching new time-travel thriller described as "alluringly knotty" and "fascinatingly obtuse" (and that's by the people who liked it), sure made me feel that way.

The movie, written, directed and produced by math-major-turned-engineer-turned-first-time-auteur Shane Carruth, is almost defiant in its impenetrability, as though it were daring you not to get it. Winner of not one but two awards at Sundance (the Grand Jury Prize and the Alfred P. Sloan Prize for advancing science and technology in film), "Primer," for all its accolades and brainiac pedigree, feels like a case of the emperor's new clothes. If you don't love it (let alone understand it), there's something wrong with you, dim-bulb, not the movie.

Smarter than thou: David Sullivan and Shane Carruth in "Primer," a film that has won lots of fancy prizes, so if you don't get it, you can just blame yourself. (Thinkfilm)

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I don't buy it.

Set in an unnamed contemporary nowhere of featureless suburban houses and depressing industrial parks, "Primer" centers on the adventures of Abe (David Sullivan) and Aaron (Carruth), a couple of pocket-protector types who, in their off hours and with the assistance of two buddies (Casey Gooden and Anand Upadhyaya), have been running a small tech business out of someone's garage. As the film gets underway, the entrepreneur inventors haven't managed to come up with anything close to the iPod. Still, it isn't long -- considering that the film clocks in at under 90 minutes -- before they stumble upon a device that has, as the breathless press material pants, some "highly unexpected capabilities."

Let's cut the coyness: It's a time machine. And not just any time machine, but one that, like "Back to the Future's" DeLorean, takes you back in the time stream to a point at which you encounter your own double. So much for breaking new ground in the annals of science fiction.

Unable to parlay their engineering skills into something with a useful (i.e., lucrative) application, Abe and Aaron decide to use their device to game the stock market, by going back just enough hours to buy shares in companies that they have learned will increase in value later that day. With any luck, their doubles will then also enter the machine later in the day, just as they have, creating a kind of temporal symmetry, with two versions of Abe and Aaron switching places every day or so as they enter and exit the Wayback machine.

Here's where the fun (as in fun house mirrors) begins.

Ah, if only that were the case, and the "fun" didn't feel so much like "work." "Primer" isn't just knotty, I'll have you know. It's dense, and in a way that doesn't begin to reward the effort required to untie it.

Written in a style that resembles David Mamet (if Mamet were a particularly testy computer repairman) and edited with a sense of obfuscation that seems deliberately, almost perversely, designed to thwart pleasure (or easy analysis), "Primer" has been compared to films like "Memento" and "Pi" -- far better, smarter and more stylish puzzlers that at least paid dividends for the viewer's investment of time and mental exertion. As "Primer" progresses, it just gets murkier and the experience of it more drudgelike, as though its inspiration were a treatise Carruth read somewhere on causality, and not a desire to delight the mind and senses.

Carruth, a novice filmmaker, can be forgiven for the project's structural weaknesses, but the engineer in him should know better. Any machine (or movie) that uses up more energy than it generates will eventually run out of steam.

PRIMER (PG-13, 82 minutes) -- Contains some obscenity. At Landmark's E Street Cinema.

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