“I can imagine no way in which this thing could be considered anywhere remotely close to safe.”

Those words sum up Primer’s approach to time travel, which is different than any I’ve seen before. Written and directed by, and also starring Shane Carruth, this low-budget (around $7,000, most of which was spent on film) science-fiction film weaves a story more complicated than most that will probably take some explanation afterward. (I had to read two different explanations online before everything clicked with me.)

The plot itself begins rather simply: two scientist friends accidentally discover a method of limited time travel. They quickly discover that traveling through time is not at all easy, and the plot quickly grows into something much more complex than anything I imagined going into the experience. Make no mistake: if you don’t put effort into keeping up with this movie, it will leave you behind. The dialogue moves quickly, and nobody ever talks to the camera—we are merely eavesdroppers on conversations between colleagues who need no redundant exposition or simple explanation. In the end, we’re still left with a host of questions about the technology and rules of time travel, and the implication is that the characters may never know the answers. We’re not meant to understand everything—we’re meant to see how it affects the characters and forces them into the choices they make.

From this, they deduced that the problem was recursive; but, beyond that, found themselves admitting, against their own nature, and once again, that the answer was unknowable.

As a low-budget indie movie, there are some issues with the technical aspects of Primer. There are scenes where it’s hard to hear the dialogue over background noise. There are shots slightly out of focus. There are virtually no special effects. The pay-off for this film is rooted in the same thing that caused these technical issues: it’s an indie film. Film studios would never allow a movie this complex or well-thought-out to be made. The story is unique and multifaceted, which more than makes up for the technical flaws.

Primer Timeline
If you’re having trouble understanding things, this chart might help… maybe.

The complexity is something I’m still pondering four days after viewing, and it’s amazing how seamlessly everything was woven together. As I mentioned, parts of the movie are intentionally left unexplained. I will eventually go back and watch it again, and will probably come out with even more questions, theories, and ideas.

As a complex science-fiction film, the appeal of Primer is more limited than many of the other movies on this list. If unpacking multiple layers of a complex plot or exploring a new take on time travel sound interesting to you, though, I would highly recommend checking out this movie. If you watch it with a group and discuss it afterward, all the better. Just bear in mind that it will probably take some explanation or another viewing afterward—or both—to fully get everything that transpires.

View my complete list of classic, essential, or just plain good movies!

Runtime: 1:19
Director: Shane Caruth
Year: 2004
Genre: sci-fi
Rating: PG-13

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