The middle of the summer blockbuster season seems an appropriate time to look back at a film which rebelled against so many of that genre’s defining traits. 10 years ago, Shane Carruth’s sci-fi Primer was released in the UK, marking the arrival of a precocious new talent who seemed to be making films from a completely different perspective to the rest of the industry.
Primer first made an impact at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, an event that celebrates the less conventional and more independent areas of filmmaking. It provided the perfect stage for Primer to shine. The film tells the story of Abe (David Sullivan) and Aaron (Carruth), two scientists and entrepreneurs who spend every second outside of work developing inventions that they hope will make them their fortune. They work from Aaron’s garage with two other colleagues, but then they stumble upon an invention that they want to keep for themselves. Somehow, they’ve developed a time machine.
So far you’d be forgiven for interpreting all this as a typical blockbuster film, with its obvious sci-fi trappings, but Primer is so much more than that. It tells its story in a restrained, ultra-realistic and innovative way. So much so that it won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. In comparison, blockbusters are as good as marketed on the fact they are anything but ultra-realistic. They offer escapism, but Primer offered a level-headed look at how fantastical ideas like time travel could become reality.
It was a refreshing change of approach from the average blockbuster which threw around big ideas but never attempted to explain them beyond a handful of pseudo-scientific terms. Ironically, much of Primer’s dialogue reads similarly on the surface. There are plenty of muttered conversations about the minutiae of Abe and Aaron’s experiments. They just about hold up with the bare minimum logic to explain the film’s science, and most importantly they serve as a mark of authenticity. Where blockbuster science is a token gesture, Primer’s science feels like the essential building blocks of both the plot and the character.
The blockbuster scientist is typically a doom-mongering eccentric, often played for comic effect against a cast who don’t understand a word they’re saying. Primer avoids such condescension by prioritising the science in sci-fi. Abe and Aaron are equals; mid-level everymen with strong scientific knowledge and an ambitious streak. Their depth as characters is essential because there are almost none of the showboating special effects or action sequences to distract.
The innovation of blockbusters in these areas is perhaps the genre’s proudest achievement. In that respect Primer shows less of an inventive streak and more a kind of stubbornness to resist the easy spectacle of CGI. It’s also a decision that is based in the most fascinating thing about Primer: its production.
The film was made for an impressively frugal $7,000 dollars so there was simply no money to put in any special effects, even if Carruth had wanted to. Nearly all the money went on film stock and the tiny, multi-skilled cast and crew shot mostly in the houses and apartments of friends and family. Every inch of film stock was so precious that Carruth prepared meticulous storyboards and insisted on extensive rehearsals before the shoot, so much so that most of the film’s scenes were shot in one take.
The need to keep costs down was one of the main reasons Carruth cast himself as one of the two leads, but there was also the more utilitarian reason that he “had memorised the script anyway. And I figured I could count on myself to be there every time we shot!” Besides, most of the actors he had auditioned struggled to nail the low-key tone he was going for, putting too much drama into the line readings from force of habit.
This wasn’t the only role that Carruth took upon himself through necessity. His full list of credits for the film reads: actor, director, writer, producer, composer and editor. Few people can master one of those disciplines in a lifetime, but Carruth somehow managed six principal jobs on his first film. Even more astonishingly, he taught himself all of these skills in the run-up to the film, in a kind of self-created film school. He made his own lesson plans and studied each discipline until he felt ready to try it himself for real. If nothing else, the sheer willpower Carruth demonstrated in making Primer is truly mind-blowing. Here is a man who decided he wanted to make a film and let nothing stand in his way. It’s a shining example to any aspiring filmmakers about just how much you can achieve if you really put your mind to it.
Since Primer, Carruth has made the equally mysterious and experimental Upstream Color, and had to abandon his plans for another film called A Topiary, a staggeringly ambitious project that reads like an ultra-realistic cross between Pokémon, Transformers and Chronicle. But Primer remains his greatest achievement thanks to the scale and quality of what he achieved with so little. In an industry increasingly ruled by big-budget blockbusters, Primer is the best recent example of why strong ideas and great storytelling are more powerful than any amount of franchise rights or CGI.