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Primer 111

Time-travel thriller Primer has already gained some festival attention (it won both the Alfred P. Sloan Prize and the Grand Jury Drama Prize at this year's Sundance), and OSCON attendees got a chance to watch the film last Thursday. Primer follows a stretch of time (better said, a series of timeloops) in the lives of a group of young engineers (Aaron, Abe, Robert and Phillip) whose day jobs are just a distraction necessary to pay for their real pursuit: tinkering in Aaron's garage, laboring to come up with the Big Idea that will attract VC funding and make them wildly rich. Two of them certainly find something valuable, but it doesn't lead to easy wealth. (Read on for the rest.)

The informal engineering group has evidently come up with at least one minor success; in the movie's opening scenes (with just a touch of foreboding narration hinting that not is all as it appears), the four are spending a late evening around the kitchen table of Aaron's suburban house, which could be anywhere in Silicon Valley's version of middle-class neighborhoods, or in one of the country's other tech hotbeds. (According to the credits, the movie is actually filmed around Dallas.) They're stuffing padded envelopes with a device the size of a hard drive, and arguing technical and financial details of their next project. It's a tense interchange; the players are frustrated with each other, and it's clear they might not even want to pursue a single project as a foursome.

The dialog here and throughout is sharp; not comic like the trio of lead characters in Office Space, but with the same sense of frustrated white-collar ambition. The jargon (hip-and-hopeful engineerspeak) can be a bit grating, but it flows perfectly and realistically.

The conversation continues in snippets over the next several days or weeks, with arguments over who holds patents, and whether there's an easier way to achieve temperatures low enough for superconduction in parts of the next device. Aaron and Abe are the core of the group, it seems, and the more committed to working with each other; they keep working on it as a pair, ignoring the other two for a time.

The details of what they're really hoping to make are left fuzzy, to say the least; the audience mostly sees haggling and bickering over fine points; whether the palladium is necessary, whether cheaper parts could be substituted, and so on. Visits to machine shops and diagram-driven arguments reveal that they're building something which will emit some kind of field from small plates facing the inside of a rotating mechanism, inside an argon-flooded box.

The two discover that the tabletop mechanism they've been cobbling together has some strange properties. The first clue: once its rotating parts are in motion, disconnecting the car batteries that feed it doesn't make the machine shut off as it should. The machine's motion gradually dies down, but only after minutes of inexplicable motion. Was it simply a bad measurement, or did they they just extract more energy than they'd applied? A type of mold which builds up in the mechanism as they continue to tweak it makes things even stranger; they take a sample to an acquaintance trained in biology; he declares their story of its origin "a joke." The amount of mold they've been cleaning out of the mechanism every few days, he explains, should have taken years -- not days -- to accumulate.

From here, the pace picks up in several ways: inspired by the rapid mold growth, Abe decides to put his watch into the machine, and finds that time seems to have passed within the field much faster than outside it. He and Aaron repeat the experiment, increasingly excited. The obvious ensues, and soon (after literally locking out both Phillip and Robert, making some quick ethical calculations that might not hold up in a patent suit), Abe and Aaron not only determine how to reverse the transit of time within their device, but construct a version big enough for a person to fit inside.

The rest of the film grows more ambiguous and confusing, though no less entertaining. The ambiguity is necessary for the film to move forward: if the bull-session logic of time-travel were fully explored, and every logical contradiction examined minutely, the narrator might drop out of existence, the opening scene itself might start to loop, and the characters might disappear one by one as the hypothetical past circumstances of their interactions were altered. However, the line is drawn such that the story gets told without bogging down in the inherent paradoxes; instead, the problems with crossing time paths pop up just enough to keep things interesting -- which is guaranteed to happen when the past and present instances of each character start to do more than simply observe each other from a distance.

The first Doppelgaenger appearance is shown by Abe to Aaron; Abe wanted to gradually reveal his already implemented plan to put the full-size machine in a place that met their need for an inconspicuous, windowless, climate-controlled home for the device. He decided on the local storage-rental facility (which drew some laughs from the audience). Through binoculars, he allows Aaron a glimpse of his alter ego passing through the doors of the facility with an oxygen tank.

A second machine soon lets both characters travel back and forth simultaneously, breathing from oxygen tanks inside their argon-flooded boxes. At first, both characters spend their time in the past isolated in a hotel room, watching TV and eating junk food, slowly convincing themselves that nothing catastrophic seems to result, that the world goes on just as it always has. Their caution gives way to optimism, and they come up with an easier way to make Big Money: look up stock results in the present day at a small-town library where they're unlikely to interact with anyone they know, and buy index funds shares -- in the recent past -- in funds they know are about to rise. (With index funds, they realize, the gains would be less conspicuous than single stocks, despite the tempation for quicker gains.)

The pair start living killingly long days; 24 hours, of course, have to be accounted for in the world of conventional time, and the rest in the recent past. By carpooling and calling in sick days, they contrive ways to conceal the double life.

If your system of belief suspension allows you to enjoy the movie so far, things get even more interesting. Despite their attempts to simply keep a low profile, avoid conversations with people they might see in their ordinary life, and so on, Aaron and Abe inevitably let their guard down, and then choose to ignore caution altogether when it means (they think) saving a life.

The interactions of past selves and present selves grows more sinister, and eventually downright treacherous. Who (and when) each character really is gets ever more difficult to sort out, for the characters as well as for the audience. The filmmakers have a clever idea of how a motivated and unscrupulous time-traveler might try to resolve the problem of tangling different time slices.

I suspect Primer will catch on, whether or not it soon reaches wide release. It's edgy in the same way as The Conversation . Primer comes much closer to the mind-tweaking of a Philip K. Dick story than this year's Paycheck did; while Paycheck was actually based on a Dick short story, it was dolled up and stretched for the big screen and in the process lost the original story's spare feel.

The technical goofs (some rough editing in spots, and an orangish cast, at least in the print shown in Portland) are easy to look past, and may even increase the creepy noir feeling. (Shane Carruth wrote and directed the film, and produced it on a budget of just $7,000; for that, a few choppy frames are hard to complain about.) The plot, too, has some rough edges (get out your time-travel dilemma blinders, and be prepared for some Star Trek-style technical doublespeak). On the whole, though, Primer is taut, smart, and well worth seeing.

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Comments Filter:
  • Labour, labour (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward
    "Two of them certainly find something valuable, but it doesn't lead to easy wealth. (Read on for the rest.)"

    Unfortunately it rarely does. Starting a business is like giving birth. If you knew what was involved, you never would have started.
    • If you knew what was involved, you never would have started.

      I grant you that products are like babies: generally easy to conceive but hard to deliver. But, given the number of people who have undertaken their second or more venture and given the number of multiple-child families I think you have failed to make a case. In both case some sort of pain suppression or whatever seems to kick in and people come back for more.

  • by zymano ( 581466 ) on Sunday August 01, 2004 @06:07PM (#9859691)
    How do movies get selected for Sundance ?

    There must be a ton of movies for them to choose from .
    • by Temsi ( 452609 ) on Sunday August 01, 2004 @07:03PM (#9859910) Journal
      Usually, they get assistants and interns to view submissions (there can be thousands).
      That is... they view the submissions that interest them after reading the synopsis.
      They don't approve or disapprove a submission, but they make recommendations to the committees, who then view a handful of submissions and choose from those.
      A lot of times they don't even view the whole film, just parts of it.
      If you know someone there it also helps (I've seen enough Sundance rejects that were better than the ones accepted to know quality is not necessarily a deciding factor).
      Basically, like every other film festival - there's a lot of politics involved.
      At least... this is what I've heard.
      If anyone here has evidence to the contrary, please post it, I'd like to know.

      • At least... this is what I've heard.
        So this is hearsay evidence, essentially rumor as far as we know. And it got two moderations of "Informative."
        Does that mean two moderators know and confirm the descriptions are accurate, or that two moderators take rumor as fact?
    • I found an interesting video that you may want to take a look at.

      It's at []. Scroll to the bottom of the page.

      The video is called called "Sundance Speaks: 'Putting it Together'" and it shows the Festival Director discussing the film selection process.

  • BTW, it's pronounced with a short I, the British way. []
    • Doesn't that make it the comparative of the adjective "prim", as in

      "You're prim and proper but I'm even primer"
    • What do you mean by the short 'I'? (i'm no good with those dictionary pronounciation guides)
      Are we talking I as in 'eye', or the I in 'sit'?
    • by beeglebug ( 767468 ) * on Sunday August 01, 2004 @06:23PM (#9859762)
      As a British person myself, I can gurantee you that when discussing an introduction to something, we would say Primer, with the I pronounced the same as in Private, or Primate. Dunno where you got your info about the 'small I' from...
    • I think I read the dictionary explanation backwards... the British way seems to be with a long I, says our English editor... anyway the point is that when Tim was explaining the movie to me he kept saying it with a short I, and I eventually had to ask him "is it spelled primer like the paint, or primmer like more prim?"

      To which Tim looked at me like, what are you, on crack?

      It didn't sound like a movie on how to exceed one's current level of primness, so I assumed it referred to an instruction manual or

    • There's no such thing as British pronunciation. There's English pronunciation which includes "received pronunciation" sometimes referred to as "BBC English" (think Wilfred Hyde White), but also includes "Estuary English" (think Madonna), cockney (on no account whatsoever think Dick Van Dyke), "Scouse English" (think the early Beatles), and so on. Then, in deference to our celtic compatriots, there's "Glasgow English" (think anyone with 12+ beers inside them), "Welsh English" (think Catherine Zeta Jones be
    • If its pronounced like "primma" to rhyme with "dimmer" then thats nothing to do with British or American, its a totally different word. It refers to the first classes of school, like primmer 1, primmer 2 etc, or the books that these classes use, such as an english primmer, social studies primmer etc.

      In all other uses its pronounced to rhyme with "timer".
  • I used it to go back in time, ended up in Dallas in 1964. I landed on some guy, Lee Harvey something...well long story short I had to get future JFK to go back in time with me to kill past JFK from the grassy gnoll. So after that little mishap I just use my time machine to go through time and make sure I'm within the first 5 posts of a Slashdot story. If you're good, tomorrow i'll tell you about that whole time when they thought my name was Jesus like 2000 years ago.
  • 3.3 on imdb... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by holdonot ( 762027 )
    I do trust imdb....nothing like a grassroots voting's been pretty accurate....

    according to imdb and 119 votes, it received a 3.3

  • by Ars-Fartsica ( 166957 ) on Sunday August 01, 2004 @06:21PM (#9859751)
    A number of early systems makers and software shops (not to mention dozens of web sites) came out of garage-style operations when the barrier to entry was low. Thinking of starting a hardware operation in your garage now? Good luck, you are squaring off against massively funded incubator programs from the major manufacturers. Same with software. As for the web, the low hanging fruit has been picked and the cost of competing with "real" websites is getting higher every day. With biotech and other new techs the barrier is even higher.

    Not to sound discouraging - there are always ways bright entrepeneurs outwit big money, but doing so with practically none of their own is getting unrealistic as the IT industry matures. VCs and angel funders can help close the gap, but that of course comes with a steep price later on should things work out.

    • I'm sorry. (Score:5, Funny)

      by porkchop_d_clown ( 39923 ) <mwheinz&me,com> on Sunday August 01, 2004 @07:38PM (#9860060) Homepage
      Did you just object to a science fiction movie on the grounds that the financial backing of the characters is unrealistic?
      • That's almost enough for me to put together some kind of prize for comments that are that incredibly... I don't even know the word for it. None of the adjectives I can think of right now are strong enough.
      • Well, yeah. And while we're at it, who's funding the rebel forces in Star Wars? We're not seriously supposed to believe that X-Wings come free, are we?


    • If you were an entreprenuer or maybe took a business course you would know better.

      Small business account for most of the new innovations that are produced, not large budget research and development labs. I might not be able to build the next plane to compete with Boeing in my garage but there are plenty of great ideas that come out of the average person every year. Knowledge comes out of people's minds and a quirky or different way of looking at things. Not from the bottom of a big pile of cash.
    • Ah, there still may be a bit of room at the bottom for the "little guys"; they'll just have to make up their own industries. Tucker didn't have much luck tilting at the automotive windmills because they had already grown too big (I was tempted to insert an "800-pound-gorilla" reference there, but I figured I'd already mixed-in enough metaphors...) Ditto with the web and biotech, as you pointed out, and probably almost everything else all the way down to mousetraps.
      Space travel, however, still seems to
  • Strange Plot? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by usefool ( 798755 ) on Sunday August 01, 2004 @06:32PM (#9859797) Homepage
    One interesting line is that people cannot seem to be able to stay out of 'trouble'. If the characters can resist to interact with people and just get on with their businesses, nothing bad should happen.

    However, why did they want to go back to past and buy index funds? Can't they just go forward and 'predict' a lottery number?

    If going back to the past is the only option, here's one way to do it:

    1. Rent a place to build the machine
    2. Wait for 1-2 months to past
    3. Move built machine to the rented place
    4. Go back to 1-2 months
    5. Interact with yourselves as much as you want since your past-self already know you're coming
    6. Tell him/her to buy whatever index funds.
    7. (Obligatory) Profit!!
    • Winning the lottery attracts a lot of attention. Winning it twice would start some investigations. Being excessively "lucky" at gambling, such as betting on sports results, would also create problems. The stock market would be safer, but even there, the SEC and other regulators are looking for suspicious patterns that might indicate insider trading.
      • I was actually thinking of winning it once, with some Powerball jackpot at over $200-$300 millions, I believe that's enough to carry on with my normal life, rather than doing the hard labour of sitting in a machine going back and forward multiple times risking a machine failure of some sort.
        • If half of you went back a week and the other half week back six days? Well, I guess it wouldn't suck for you, since you'd be dead pretty much instantly, but imagine how much your buddy would be hating life... He just finishes cleaning up the mess from the first time you exploded all over the machine, and then your other half appears and messes it all back up.
  • by Vehrdiet ( 566590 ) on Sunday August 01, 2004 @06:35PM (#9859804) []
  • by No_Weak_Heart ( 444982 ) on Sunday August 01, 2004 @06:37PM (#9859812)

    Here's the official site w/trailers: []
  • thanks a lot.. (Score:4, Informative)

    by Suppafly ( 179830 ) <slashdot@suppafly. n e t> on Sunday August 01, 2004 @07:33PM (#9860042)
    could have atleast mentioned that the entire article spoils the movie..
  • a fantastic movie (Score:5, Interesting)

    by ChrisCampbell47 ( 181542 ) on Sunday August 01, 2004 @07:57PM (#9860121)
    Wow, interesting that this movie is getting Slashdot attention. When I saw this at the Atlanta Film Festival two months ago I immediately told everyone I knew about it. I've been using IMDB for a decade, but I created an IMDB account for the first time that day just so I could post the following user comment.

    You remember the first time you saw The Matrix (please, not the awful sequels) and you could barely keep up with what was going on, trying to piece together the pieces of what you were being told into a coherent story?

    This movie was exactly like that. The first half or so is fairly linear (despite the frenzied Altman-esque style of everyone talking on top of each other), but then it gets WEIRD and it just absolutely blew me away. This film won a major Sundance award, and normally that means I won't like it (especially the normally pandering audience award winners) but this movie, and first-time filmmaker Shane Carruth, deserves absolutely everything it gets. I am just blown away.

    Did you like Pi? If so, go see this one.

    By the way, the attention to detail in the beginning is great. Often in thrillers with technical content, if you have a technical education you have consciously ignore all the stupid movie crud that they pull to make it into a good story. But this movie pulls off an incredibly believable technical story, with only a few distracting gaffs. That is, the tech jargon is good enough that you don't get distracted and can focus on the story line.

    Final comment: Yes, it is very hard to follow the story line in this movie.

    Obviously I'm not going to spoil it, but I think the following fact will help when the movie gets kind of hairy towards the end: Aaron is the dark-haired guy, Abe is the blond-haired guy.

    This movie now has distribution and you should keep an eye out for it in the fall.

    • I don't understand why people use The Matrix as an example of a movie that was hard to follow. When I first heard reviews of The Matrix I was excited... it sounded like a great movie, with a lot of twisty confusing plot threads and a surprise at the end.

      And that pretty much ruined it for me.

      Because when I watched it, I saw a great straight-forward superhero movie with virtual reality as the superhero schtick. The bit where Neo has to be beat up and brought to the edge of death to gain his super powers is
    • Shane Carruth was at the Waterfront Film Festival earlier this summer talking to the audience after a screening of Primer about how the movie was made. I got the impression of an energetic, independent, and creative guy, relatively untainted by the business of the movie industry.

      Here's an interview [] with Carruth that goes into some of the background, including the $7000 budget.

  • ...there were places to see it.

    The website [] has not really been updated since June for additional screenings. Is it still being circulated?

    It says on the site that ThinkFilm acquired the distribution but it doesn't say if Primer will be circulatiing their typical distribution of coffe house independent film venues or not.

    Does anyone know where I can find an up to date showing list?
  • by Fantastic Lad ( 198284 ) on Monday August 02, 2004 @12:18AM (#9861283)
    The last few of low-budget, funky movies I've watched seemed to have this as a common element.

    --I'm thinking of "Being John Malkovich", "Cube", "Memento" and that film shot in Edmonton about office workers living and working in a mall/office complex who bet they can stay indoors for 100 days, (and which I forget the name of.)

    All very clever, but sheesh! Don't Good Guys get to be in funky films once in a while? Any film which makes me hate the main characters loses at least one and a half stars just because I can't stand assholes and creeps in real life. If a Bad Guy is in a film, then he'd better get punched, shot, blown up, or horribly embarrassed, and he'd most certainly better not be the main character!

    Bad guys aren't any fun to watch. They make me feel ill, and that's not why I pay the price of admission.

    "Office Space", had a Good Guy for a main character. I wonder if that had anything to do with its success.


    • I find films where who's the "good guy" and who's the "bad guy" is unclear to generally be far better. Real life doesn't have good or bad guys, just guys doing whatever it is that they feel the need to do.

      A film that makes it plainly obvious who is good and who is bad is, very generally speaking, less interesting to me. I can't identify with the character, because his actions and motivations are usually very cartoon-like in their simplicity. He's the good guy, so *obviously* he has to run back into the bur
      • I find films where who's the "good guy" and who's the "bad guy" is unclear to generally be far better. Real life doesn't have good or bad guys, just guys doing whatever it is that they feel the need to do.

        Speak for yourself.

        Films where the protagonists are themselves "bad guys" are usually quite good as well. Any thief movie sort of falls into this category.

        I suspect we're more or less on the same page, because I agree with this. Stereotypical 'good guys' usually aren't. I'm simply talking about peo
    • and that film shot in Edmonton about office workers living and working in a mall/office complex who bet they can stay indoors for 100 days, (and which I forget the name of.)

      I do believe that the name of the you are thinking of is "waydowntown []".

      Bad guys aren't any fun to watch. They make me feel ill, and that's not why I pay the price of admission.

      I must disagree with you, I thought the self-absorbed characters in waydowntown are a lot more realistic than most movies and thus their internal conflicts s
      • I must disagree with you, I thought the self-absorbed characters in waydowntown are a lot more realistic than most movies and thus their internal conflicts seem a more interesting to me.

        Actually, I did think of one bad character who was fun to watch; --Daffy Duck. But I can't remember a time when he's not been cast in a way where the audience was meant to laugh at him and cheer when his arrogance sends him into yet another tailspin disaster.

        It's when I am being asked to sympathize with a spineless, se
  • by berniecase ( 20853 ) * on Monday August 02, 2004 @01:23AM (#9861471) Homepage Journal
    Rated PG-13 for brief language.

    Hrm... just imagine if they talked more.
  • John Titor! (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward
    See this website [] to read about this man who claimed to be a time traveller from the future.

    Was he one of this movie's producers? Who knows?
  • by Lumpy ( 12016 ) on Monday August 02, 2004 @08:14AM (#9862086) Homepage
    I am a indy film maker but it's impossible for me to get to see these acclaimed "good" films i hear about so much.

    either the director/crew are stuck in the hollywierd though train of "mmmmm money! we'll be rich we better not let people see it!" or they dont care, just made it for the festival rounds and never EVER release it as a loq quality online version or sell a DVD/VHS of it.

    I make my fils to entertain and to show them to people.

    Why is it that it seems that I am the exception and not the rule?
  • Now if you are a fan of Reeely Bad movies, and also like time travel, you may want to also check out Time Travelers (The Four DVD set) []. This is a collection of four very bad time travel movies that I found entertaining for their badness. The movies included are:

    In the year 2889 - This is actually a post-apocolypse kind of deal, don't know why it's time travel related but is kind of amusing. Rich dude builds a bomb shelter house in a lead lined canyon and various people show up after the blast, while ot

  • at least a little from David Gerald's, The Man Who Folded Himself.

    But I still look forward to it. Sounds very interesting anyway.

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