English Title: Primer

Country of Origin: USA

Studio: THINKfilm

Director: Shane Caruth

Producer(s): Shane Caruth

Screenplay: Shane Caruth

Cinematographer: Shane Caruth

Art Director: Shane Caruth

Editor: Shane Caruth

Runtime: 77 minutes

Genre: Narrative Disorder

Language: English

Starring/Cast: Shane Caruth, David Sullivan

Year: 2004

Volume: American - Independent

In a Dallas garage, four friends devote their spare time to devising patentable tweaks to existing technology in the hope of getting rich quick. While experimenting with superconductors, Aaron and Abe produce a system which puts out more energy than they put into it. They shut out their friends while working out its implications, ultimately realizing that it is a kind of time machine: if you switch it on at time A and enter it at time B, you travel back to time A (but this also means that between times A and B, two of you exist). This enables them to take advantage of the stock market, carefully accruing wealth but without having a discernible impact on the world. Abe is anxious to avoid messing around with causality, but Aaron begins to harbour revenge fantasies. Things go awry. Aarons and Abes proliferate, attacking different versions of themselves. Disagreements escalate. One Abe sets about sabotaging the machine while another Abe (or possibly the same one, but earlier) is building it. While one Aaron settles down with his family, another finds mysterious corporate-military backers for a much larger machine somewhere overseas.


Shane Carruth’s Primer, like David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983), requires multiple viewings to figure out its deliberately-oblique narrative, aspects of which remain impossible to pin down. In this, it is unique among American time-travel movies. Unlike the Terminator (1984–2001) and Back to the Future (1985–90) trilogies, it is not easily reducible to oedipal primal-scene narrative, but is committed to a more thoroughgoing destabilization of temporality, duration, narrative, memory and identity. This contingency of meaning and self-conscious ambiguity is more akin to such European modernist time-travel fantasies as L’année dernière à Marienbad (1961), La Jetée (1962) and Je T’aime, Je T’aime (1968) and, like them, it is also a meditation on cinema itself. Early in Primer, when the garage door rolls shut, the inventors remain visible through the four windows in it; the image looks like four frames of film unspooled across a black background. In several scenes, footage overlaps, repeats from the same and different angles, the action apparently stuttering, disrupting the illusion of continuous time and space constructed by more conventional editing. Elsewhere, jump cuts compress time, to similar effect. Reality becomes subject to multiple takes, events can be revised and erased; a key incident is ‘reverse-engineered into a perfect moment’.

The film contrives to hold the viewer at a distance from the world its unsympathetic characters inhabit. Shot in 16mm and blown up to 35 mm via a digital intermediary, the film is dominated by sickly greens and yellows; ambient sound and the post-synchronized dialogue, some of it digitally distorted to match lip movements, often sound just not quite right. This is an unhomely world in which the logic of capital has spread into every corner. Aaron and Abe work 30 hours a week on top of their day jobs, but derive no pleasure from tinkering with things in their garage. Alienated from their own creative being, they have instrumentalized their own skills and desires: all they want to do is produce the tweak that will make them rich. They transform time-travel into just another form of labour – subordinating themselves to rigid schedules, tracking stocks and shares, tying themselves further into capital’s annexation of our future – and  even the extra hours they produce in their lives, extending their subjective experience by hours every day, are just dead times in which they must disconnect even further from the world. They are so woven into the fabric of late-capital that they can only imagine using this fabulous technology to leave everything – apart from their bank balances – exactly the way it was. But causality is complex, not linear: consequences come not in chains but in webs that reach in all directions. Ultimately, this is where Primer differs from nouvelle vague time-travel fantasies. They are primarily backward-looking, concerned with memory and the props which secure bourgeois identity. Primer looks to the future, but instead finds a complex, dynamic, contradictory present already out of control.

Author of this review: Mark Bould