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The Seven Thousand Dollar Science Fiction Movie
Emily Gertz, 23 Apr 05

primer_nightrun.jpgLast year, I was lucky to see "Primer" on the big screen, a movie inspired by the classic science fiction question, "what if?" What if two outwardly unassuming but inwardly ambitious engineers, Abel and Aaron, spend a lot of time tinkering in their suburban garage on the weekends, looking for a big invention that will make them rich? What if they come up with something totally unexpected? And what if there are unexpected consequences when they use it?

"Primer" is everything most Hollywood science fiction these days isn't: smart, engaging, complex, ambiguous, containing moments of surprise and real dread. It has no special effects, instead held together by the strength of the whole--writing, sound, music, understated acting and direction. It's intelligent and entertaining.

So no surprise that it wasn't made in Hollywood. The story behind "Primer" is just as good as the movie itself: Shane Carruth, himself a dissatisfied engineer, very methodically taught himself filmmaking, and produced, wrote, directed, scored, edited and starred in "Primer," spending just $7,000. And he didn't use digital video--he shot on Super 16mm film, over five weeks, with an incredibly small and multi-talented crew. The movie was blown up to 35mm for theatrical viewing, and the resulting cool, flat look echoes 1970's films like "All the President's Men"--an era many critics consider the high water mark of American filmmaking, and one Carruth acknowledges inspired his aims for "Primer."

"Primer" was a hit at the 2004 Sundance Festival, winning the Grand Jury Prize and the Sundance/Alfred P. Sloan Prize for a feature film exploring science or technology themes. Critics loved it: "Like ''Pi'' or ''Memento'' (speculative brain teasers to which this has an obvious kinship), ''Primer'' is the kind of movie likely to inspire both imitators and cultists," wrote A.O. Scott in the New York Times. "I know of one critic who has already seen it at least five times at various festivals, and part of the attraction is the tantalizing belief that if you see it enough, you will finally figure it all out."

"Primer" rode that success into limited U.S. distribution. Now, it's out on DVD--so if "Primer" didn't make it to a theatre in your town, pick it up.

Movies like this are a shot across the bow of the mainstream entertainment complex, whose multi-million dollar disappointments continue to pile up, and very happy things for people like me, who look to science fiction to explore both the promises and implications of technology, and to movies in general to deal with some real ideas.

I'd just like to be entertained by my favorite genre, too--and not in that "so bad it's good" way. I'd like to come away feeling happy about sinking ten dollars into that ticket!

It's not simply that "anyone can make a movie"--Shane Carruth did a lot more than just pick up a camera to make "Primer." But the opportunities to learn and to be seen, and inexpensive means of distribution like DVD, make it more possible than ever for different visions and voices to make it out to the mainstream. And that's got worldchanging potential.

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Sounds very interesting. I'm definitely tracking it down and seeing it before long. Thank you for the review.

Posted by: Mikhail Capone on 23 Apr 05

Here's a review I wrote on the DVD release of primer (including the special features, etc) - not a bad release, could have been better given the significance and uniqueness of the film.

Posted by: Rod Edwards on 23 Apr 05

I'ts funny you wrote about this today. just last night was the first time i saw primer (a university film club screening, ticket: $3.50)

I loved it. the look was certanly very interesting, and I'm going to be getting it on DVD to pretty much show everyone.

Posted by: Andrew on 23 Apr 05

Thanks for posting the review - it popped up on my customized GoogleNews. This is probably the most exciting thing I've heard about in science fiction for years. :)

Posted by: CmdrSue on 23 Apr 05

I loved Primer...sci-fi has always been a favorite and good stuff is hard to find; most is so commercial and boringly predictable. Primer is a breath of fresh air, although I have to admit some prejudice since my brother Keith is in the film. Just love Shane's mind and imagination. Can't wait for more. We are starved for something intelligent. Karen Bradshaw

Posted by: Karen Bradshaw on 24 Apr 05

hey emily,

the first link in yer post ain't working.

thanks for lettisng us know about Primer!

Posted by: Rohit Gupta on 27 Apr 05

Fixed--thanks for the heads-up.

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 27 Apr 05

I quite liked primer, myself.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 30 Apr 05

Just saw this movie for the first time, and I definitely would need to take notes to understand everything (if that's even possible).

Quite an enjoyable experience, though.

Posted by: Mikhail Capone on 2 May 05



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