When most people think of science fiction, something like Star Trek or Star Wars comes to mind. Spaceships, aliens, laser guns and the like fill the air. What people do not realize is that some of the best science fiction is not necessarily about things but about ideas. I, Robot was an interesting example. Yes, it was about robots and had many of the typical elements, but the core of the film asked what it meant to be human. Primer is like this. This is low budget filmmaking at its best. It looks like a bunch of guys did it in their garage using things around them. Primer is film about ideas, and a smartly written one at that. It was smart enough to win two Awards at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival; the Grand Jury Prize and the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize, awarded to films dealing with science.

Shane Carruth is the brains behind Primer. Before he became a filmmaker, he was an engineer, and his experience shows. The characters in the film speak in dense, almost impenetrable terms familiar to anybody with a scientific background. Carruth scripts things purposefully vague. It is enough to understand that all the characters know what they are talking about, and are working on something tangible and believable. This is unlike other films, especially ones that take place in college classrooms, and show things like algebra on the chalkboard in the background. The flipside is that for people with little to no scientific background, most of the dialogue will sound like gibberish. Carruth deserves a lot of credit for not dumbing down the script so that the Joe Idiot can understand it. This is a smart film, and requires a significant mental investment in order to enjoy it to its fullest extent.

Carruth has all the actors speak with a near monotone, staccato-like delivery. These are all engineers here. They have little time for small talk. It is easy to get lost in the vocabulary. Four friends are working on some unnamed project in a garage. Whatever they are doing tends to fail a lot, and they spend a decent amount of time trying to figure out what direction to take next. Things change when Abe (David Sullivan) discovers something really strange. He tests and retests, then confides to Aaron (Carruth) his findings. He hesitates telling Aaron everything, wanting Aaron to discover for himself the strange results that Abe found.

Abe has found a way to move things though time. He cannot figure out exactly how he got to this, but the results are clear. What sets Primer apart from other films is that Abe and Aaron are rational, thinking, realized characters. They are extremely curious about what the ramifications are, yet frightened at the possibilities. Each experiment takes things a little farther, and makes them a little more nervous. They start simply, by doing things like playing the stock market. It's really easy when they know where a stock will be at close. As they accustom themselves to small things, they become more ambitious. They try for bigger things, and worry about potential paradoxes that may occur. They become more paranoid, suspicious at the people around them and ultimately at each other. Carruth piles on the paranoia, as the aims of both men begin to diverge. Each one wants different things, and thinks the other is conspiring against him. Primer becomes extraordinarily difficult to follow as it nears its conclusion, but everything does play out correctly if one pays attention.
Mongoose Rates It: Pretty Good.
1 hour, 18 minutes, Rated PG-13 for brief language.

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