Primer
2004
Quite by accident, an engineer builds a machine that can transport the user back in time. But his discovery comes with an ominous caveat: At the heart of this puzzling device, nothing is as it seems on the surface.

Scott Hardie: “It ruled.”

If you have any interest in "Primer," avoid the reviews and the Netflix description, which give away a crucial discovery that doesn't come until some time into the film. See, the movie's about four amateur engineers building a machine in their spare time, and so much of the fun of the first act comes from the knowledge that their machine does something, but they and we have no idea what. Several tantalizing clues are dropped, until the truth emerges in a moment that should send chills up your spine, and then the film really takes off...

What you should know in advance is that this is not the most satisfying of films. It's a puzzle without a definite solution, though you may safely invent several possible solutions. Actor-writer-director-cinematographer-producer-editor-composer Shane Carruth apparently decided early on that the film should have no canonical plotline under the layers of deception and unrelated information, since the characters lose track of the truth just as we do. It can be maddening in this way, putting you through a maze that doesn't have an exit, and the first twenty minutes add insult to injury, making you sit through the most agonizingly dull engineer techno-speak this side of Star Trek. Carruth is an engineer by trade and the talk adds up to a halfway plausible machine for all I know, but there's a way to make that kind of discussion interesting for the audience, and this movie doesn't know it.

But, if you put up with the film's two biggest flaws, you're in for a treat. This has been called a mindfuck on the order of "Memento" and "Donnie Darko," and certainly it bears a similarity. However, this film isn't interested in the souls of its heroes like those two were; it's a low-key thriller in which a few unassuming techheads stumble onto something remarkable, and react to it. That repeating cycle of newfound awe and imaginative applications are the spark here, and they're entertaining from start to finish. Carruth also deserves to be lauded for pulling off such a balanced, healthy film with drop-in-a-bucket funding ($7000 budget) and limited shooting space; it never feels like it lacks for adequacy. This is an impressive achievement in micro-indie filmmaking, and damn entertaining yarn as well, if you don't mind the pieces forever not fitting into place.

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