A Primer Primer

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There are few things I find as satisfying as the micro-budget, independently produced work of great entertainment, talent, or genius. The small work, often self-financed, that announces the arrival of a new talent and shows us a vision of story, of the world, of human experience that is unencumbered by the absurd, commercialist dictates of the larger engines of media in New York, Hollywood, etc.

It’s these kind of great efforts and small works that have brought us classic material like Carnival of Souls, Cometbus, and many novels and comics. It’s also now brought us Primer.

Primer is a small, grounded science fiction movie, arriving in a time when science fiction has come to mean tattered spaceships, conspiracy epics, endless rehashes of 25-year-old-ideas, and $100 million budgets. Primer is science fiction on a human scale, not a cosmic scale.

Primer is a new take on an old story: what if someone was able to build a time machine? Where other movies and books have used time travel as an excuse for fancy machinery, nightmare scenarios (as appealing as they may be), and epic reconstructions of history, Primer is about people and how the discovery of time travel would affect, change, and unravel them.

It’s a subtle movie (how many other movies would allow their first major reveal to be a medium-range shot, unaccompanied by dialogue or any other trapping designed to convey import?) , but also subtly disturbing and fascinating. Which seems fitting. After all, if there is time travel, we wouldn’t be likely to know about it, would we? Things would just change and we’d never know anything was different. The movie pushes that idea a bit further for its characters: what would it mean if you knew time travel was real – because you invented it – and still things are changing for reasons you can’t explain?

Primer also has some interesting, frightening things to say about the fluidity of our own identities.

The movie qualifies as one of those small, sweet joys as it was made on a budget of only US$7,000 and has gone on to be extremely well-reviewed, featured in numerous festivals, and even won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance 2004.

Primer was released on DVD in April and can be had through Netflix among other places. Fans of intelligent science fiction, independent cinema, and quiet, smart movies would do themselves well to seek it out.

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