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In the Loop

'Primer' poses a host of tantalizing questions

By Richard von Busack

IF THE new movie I ♥ Huckabees and its evil twin, What the #$*! Do We Know!?, interpret the new physics as the idea that the universe is warm and wants to give us a group hug, Shane Carruth's prize-winning indie film Primer is far more hard-headed. To Carruth, the ultimate question isn't "Who are we?" or "Where are we going?" but "Who can we sell this to?" And just as the film Office Space's cult is due to the way it picks up on the ennui of the light-industrial park, this movie gets into the toxic essence of working in high tech. The action takes place in a no-name small city (Austin) where no building is older than 1970, and it is shot through an amber filter that makes every person, place and thing look like a feature of a dry and cold future.

Abe (David Sullivan) and Aaron (Carruth)—two engineers with barely a personality between them—work on inventions in their spare time. They're both on the make in the corporate world; even during off-hours, they're never without suits and ties that a Mormon missionary would reject as too drab. Horsing around a low-energy refrigeration technique and using a Weeble toy as a marker in the experiment, they discover unexpected results. First, they note a reduction in the Weeble's mass by a few grams. Later, its surface grows mildew that couldn't have materialized without about two years of lightless solitude. Without ever using the phrase "time machine," both realize what they've got on their hands is the ultimate invention.

And yet it is an invention without a killer app. The possibilities of misuse are unspeakably frightening, and Abe and Aaron aren't 100 percent certain what they have. Thus they are terrified of selling the unnamed device prematurely. The two—who quite rightly start to suspect one another—become weary time commuters, repeatedly going back a day to make money on the next day's stock market.

Carruth implies an unknown physical cost to this device. "I can imagine no way that this could be considered anything close to safe," one of the inventors says. By the time you've parsed this creepy sentence, the two are showing unexplained ear bleeds and severe neurological trouble. While they are accustomed to crunch time—"I'm getting used to these 36 hour days"—it is readily apparent that this time-travel business seems to be like taking a melon scoop to your brain.

"A wise director learns to lower his brow a little," Satyajit Ray once said. Carruth is unwilling to meet the viewer halfway. In the second half, it becomes near impossible to tell where and when Abe and Aaron are. We are apparently meant to feel as disoriented as these two exhausted and frightened engineers. A woman in the film ends up in danger, and we hardly care, because we don't know her. Carruth does without establishing shots and uses flash-forwards right at the perfect time to strand the viewer. But the $7,000 budget is the least interesting thing about Primer. It is one of the fastest-paced movies of the year, at 82 minutes long, and it presumes you know what it's saying. I don't pretend I understand all of it, but I intend to keep rewatching it until I do.

Primer (PG-13; 82 min.), directed and written by Shane Carruth and starring Carruth and David Sullivan, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the October 13-19, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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