Primer
R0 - United Kingdom - Tartan Video
Review written by and copyright: Noor Razzak and Tom Williams (16th March 2006).
The Film

Committing to a film featuring heavy science as a major plot point is usually fraught with difficulty. While Primer is a compelling film, its strength lies not in an exciting, effects-heavy exploration of the powers of science, but in strong performances and excellent characterisation. Primer is director/actor/everyman Shane CarruthĎs story of Abe (David Sullivan) and Aaron (played by Carruth), two members of a small group of engineers who pursue their own scientific discoveries together outside the atmosphere of the corporation for which they all work. When the pair decide to work on a project without the help of the other two members of their group, they discover they have built something far greater than they imagined- and this discovery immediately poses the question of how to use it.
The first half of the film is the stronger, with a greater focus on interpersonal dynamics rather than the morality of science. Abe, Aaron and company talk over each other, carry on conversations with different people at the same time, and speak in scientific jargon that is at best difficult to follow. While some might find this annoying, or frustrating, it can also be seen as a far more realistic depiction of this sort of social interaction than is normally seen. A typical Hollywood science movie shows prototype devices that are all shiny chrome and neon lights, while scientists speak in passionate oratory about the potential in their newest project. In reality, of course, this is rarely the case, and in Primer we see what it might really be like when a group of young, bright, talented men get together and try to build something. Their dialogue, filled with scientific knowledge that we donít have, and references to conversations we havenít shared, makes us feel like we may actually be watching a real conversation, rather than being provided with plot exposition.
It is this sort of realism that grounds the film and makes it interesting. The men we see building this fantastic device are shown in glimpses balancing family commitments, having to call in sick to follow their passion and not always knowing what to say or how to say it. That said, we are shown so little of our protagonists other character features that the capacity to empathise with them is diminished- like the people who achieve things in real life, they are single-minded to an extreme. The film itself falters as it continues. Like so many movies with an origin story of some kind, it is what leads up to the invention that delights us, and the climax, but not the tedious steps in between. As the potential for their device grows, and the moral issues accumulate, the element which linked us to the film- the humanity of the protagonists- disappears. Abe and Aaron become tied up in the problems, moral and physical, inherent in a device such as theirs, and their dialogue moves from science we donít understand to logic that canít be followed. Even the climactic finish is more full of assertions than compelling dialogue.
As Primer finishes, it leaves a better taste in your mouth to consider the film as a character study- how would these characters react, given what theyíve built? How would you? Do their goals and their problems create motivations in which they react consistently? The answer is yes, definitely. Though the characters Carruth created for the film are not necessarily alpha figures, they are consistent and realistic depictions of real people for the whole journey. From the point of view of a movie attempting to blow your mind, Primer falls somewhat short of the mark, as logically inconsistent events affect unsympathetic characters. Primer is a well made film, one which can certainly hold your attention for its duration and practically demands repeat viewings. Itís a shame, then, that such repeat viewings donít so much add levels of understanding but frustrate you at the filmís inadequacies.

Video

presented in a 1.78:1 widescreen ratio, this anamorphic transfer is beautiful. Shot in 16 millimetre film and blow-up to 35 for theatrical exhibition, this transfer appears to have been made from the original 16mm elements, usually a blow-up means that grain becomes a whole lot more visible. This is no the case here, the image is crystal clear and sharp. The colours are lush and splendid, skin tones are spot on in many cases, blacks are deep and shadow detail is consistent throughout the print. This is a fine job, I could not spot any flaws while viewing this film.

Audio

Only one audio track is included, an English Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo. While most Tartan released tend to sport a DTS track this is not the case here, the Stereo track is mainly centred at the front speaker and rarely splits away. While dialogue is clear and distortion free itís sometimes hard to keep track with many of the conversations as character tend to talk over one another. The track lacks any depth which would have been nice for the time travel moments, although this is dialogue-based film some atmospheric surrounds wouldnít not have gone amiss, aside from this itís a fairly suitable effort.
Optional subtitles are also included in English for the Hearing Impaired.

Extras

First up we have a feature-length audio commentary by writer/director/actor Shane Carruth. Carruth jumps into this track rather quickly, he moves at a steady pace covering various aspects of the production from locations and shooting in places he has access to from friends and family, to where he got all the equipment, and also comments on the writing process and the evolution of the story especially in creating a time travel movie on a tiny budget.

The second audio commentary features writer/director Shane Carruth, camera operator Daniel Bueche, actor/cinematographer Anand Upadhyaya, soundman Reggie Evans and actors David Sullivan and Chip Carruth. The participants all discuss their various jobs on the film, being a low budget a lot of the crew also appeared in the film. They also shed light on the production process, as well as completing scenes and the limitations and challenges they faced with having almost no money. The rehearsal process is also covered among other interesting titbits.

While these two commentaries certainly flesh out our knowledge of the movie- and in some places, are very interesting indeed- they seem little more than cursory attempts at special features than anything truly remarkable. That said, for a film shot on a budget of rather less than a new car, any features at all are luxuries- and commentaries are not only the easiest, but probably the most interesting we could be given. Given that Primer practically demands repeat viewings in order to make total sense of what is going on, the commentaries may seem like a little too much work- but they cut over the dialogue too much for you to follow both film and commentary at the same time..

Typically, the original theatrical trailer makes an appearance and runs for 1 minute 38 seconds, as do various trailers from other Tartan Films, in a promotional move which can at least be appreciated for its shamelessness. These previews included are:
- Sky Blue which runs for 1 minute 55 seconds.
- Silver City which runs for 1 minute 44 seconds.
- Secret Lives of Dentists which runs for 2 minutes 17 seconds.

Finally a 2-panel booklet is included with some notes by Kim Newman.

The DVD features on Primer reflect the bare minimum Iíd expect on any DVD, though Primerís shoestring budget probably restricts the inclusion (or even creation) of any more.

Overall

The Film: B Video: A+ Audio: B Extras: C+ Overall: B