Primer (2004) – Now I Can’t Remember How To Drive

Synopsis: Two part time inventors, working from their garage, accidently create something more powerful than they are able to comprehend……..I think. I’m not entirely sure

My Take

The fact I had a headache when I went to bed on Sunday was almost entirely my own fault. I say almost because I am incapable of admitting anything is ever entirely my fault. My wife would tell you it was in fact entirely my own fault. I blame Primer.


A myriad of factors played their roles in the theatre of my cranial discomfort. Having had my senses pummeled for two and a half hours the night before by Zack Snyder and his smashy explody version of Superman (which I did enjoy despite that pithy comment. Review here), I woke up with a dull head on Sunday morning. Being Sunday and sunny I then proceeded to drink at lunch. That didn’t help.

It was probably my decision thought at around 1800hrs that evening that made my head feel like my brain had decided to sneak out and leave a full size Roseanne Barr doll in it’s place. You see having had one end of the cinematic spectrum in Man of Steel, where I literally watched someone blowing up hundreds of millions of dollars, I felt I needed to restore some balance. I needed something small, thoughtful and extremely indie. For some reason I thought then would be as good a time as any to rewatch Primer.

What a terrible yet brilliant yet terrible idea. Because I used so much brain power trying to work out what was going on that I now can’t remember how to drive or make a Chicken Madras from scratch. And this is my SECOND time of watching it.

Primer 2

Taking several bites at the cherry with Primer is kind of par for the course though, so I won’t be to hard on myself. Written and directed by Shane Carruth, a mathematician and engineer, Primer has gained a hardcore cult following since it was released in 2004, picking up the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in the process. It is a film so complex that it has spawned countless websites dedicated to explaining it’s every minutia, and even a printed book about it’s theories.

Made on a famously small budget of $7000, what it achieves should make people like Zack Snyder and Andrew Stanton blush. The story is at once both simple and brain meltingly complex. It essentially follows two friends, engineers for a large firm during the day, who use their skills to innovate in their garage by night. When they try and create a machine that will reduce the weight of objects, they inadvertently create a time machine.

Back to the Future this is not. Time Cop this most certainly is not. It even makes more serious sci-fi like Looper look stupid. Primer is in fact less science fiction and more theoretical science fact. Carruth made a conscious decision when writing the script that he wanted to use mathematical and engineering language without dumbing anything down. It is the most extreme form of asking your audience to come up to your level. Primer explores the age old premise of power corrupts, with the hyper realistic portrayal of two above average minds accidently achieving the Holy Grail of theoretical physics and then trying to work out how to use it constructively without telling anyone what they are doing. Oh, that old chestnut.

The speed of that dialogue combined with a low quality sound mix makes understanding Primer a near Herculean feat on first, second or multiple watches depending on your grasp of theoretical thermodynamics (mine is average….). In fact, as one reviewer astutely observed upon it’s release “anybody who claims he fully understands what’s going on in Primer after seeing it just once is either a savant or a liar”.

It is, in no uncertain terms, a tough watch. Yet, for the second time I found myself completely captivated by what was going on without every really knowing what it was. Admittedly second time through I was able to focus more on the micro and less on the meta. But even so, I had to pause three times to let everything catch up in my head and process some of the stuff out loud. It rattles along at a relentless pace and never stops to check if you “got all of that?”. But I was never bored and never turned off by feeling too stupid to get it.

At it’s core it is a sci-fi thriller in the vein of Twelve Monkeys. Terry Gilliam would have been proud to make Primer.

Conclusion: I could watch this 10 times and still feel lost, but I am fairly certain I would still enjoy it every time. If you watch it I would recommend reading the Wikipedia synopsis and then go back and watch it again http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Primer_(film)

Verdict: 8/10


Director/Writer: Shane Carruth – former math and engineering student, this was his first film. And until last month it was his only film remarkably. Just released follow up Upstream Colour which sounds just as trippy.

Cast: Shane Carruth, David Sullivan


  • The budget for the entire film was around $7000. Most of the money was spent on film stock.
  • Shane Carruth stated that at most an 80 minute movie could be made from the footage; the film ended up being 78 minutes long. He stated that the shooting ratio was 2:1.
  • The film took $500,000 box office from it’s $7000 budget


5 replies »

  1. Having absolutely NO grasp of theoretical thermodynamics (or even the basic knowledge of what in the heck that means), I watched Primer, and enjoyed it. I hadn’t heard of it before, so I stumbled upon it via Netflix suggestions (ohhh Netflix, you little rabbit-hole of weirdness). I followed the plot the way you appreciate a song in another language: you have no idea what it’s about, but it sounds pretty. I don’t feel the need to watch it more than once and try to figure it out, so I’d say that it IS possible to watch Primer once and like it. You just have to accept that you’re too stupid to really get it, and just let the craziness wash over you. It is one crazy movie.

    • Thanks for the comment. I also have absolutely no grasp of actual thermodynamics, yet alone theoretical thermodynamics. But as you say the beauty of Primer is something in the energy and language that keeps you barrelling along never concerned with the fact most of it goes over your head. I imagine I will watch it a couple more times and will be none the wiser really as to what is going on, but I am sure I will enjoy it just the same. I agree it is possible to watch it the once and like it, but I would take with a pinch of salt anyone who watched it once and says they understood it. Thanks again for the comment!

      • Ha yes, I definitely did not understand it. But I liked it 🙂 Having never done drugs, I may be totally off here, but it kind of felt like I had just dropped acid; nothing made sense, but I was just enjoying the wild ride.

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