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Primer is of the nerds, for the nerds, and by the nerds—well, by just one nerd, actually. First-time writer, director, and actor Shane Carruth, the film’s press materials lead you to believe, is definitely of the brainiac persuasion: After earning a math degree, the now-31-year-old suffered through three brief engineering jobs before realizing that what he really wanted to do was tell stories. So for three years, he “taught himself” filmmaking by reading scripts and studying technique at several production houses. And when he finally decided to make a movie, Carruth immersed himself in physics, a subject he claims was previously foreign to him.
None of this would be terribly interesting if Primer sucked, which a $7,000 movie about time travel could justly be expected to do. But from the moment it drops you into the middle of a debate involving four shirtsleeved and tie-wearing young geeks and their after-work science project, the film commands attention with almost professorial authority. It’s Memento divided by pi: The pieces may or may not add up in the end, and you won’t always understand what the characters are talking about. But rather than simply confounding, all that lab lingo Carruth worked so hard to perfect manages to make us dopes listen harder and want to learn more.
Primer’s initial four characters soon narrow to two: Abe (David Sullivan) and Aaron (Carruth), 20-something engineers who, in their desire to achieve fame or at least fortune—“marketability” is one word you’re sure to catch—want to take the garage project they’ve started with their friends in another direction. So they begin working in secret, honing their gizmo and arguing about methods and budgets, until, well, something finally happens: The machine “stabilizes,” and a weird form of mold, which a scientist later tells them normally takes years to develop, shows up within days on any object they throw into their souped-up box. Abe and Aaron aren’t yet sure what this means, but they suspect it could be big.
The thrills in this sci-fi thriller are relatively minor and mostly of the head-trip variety. Abe and Aaron discover that their invention can take them back in time, an ability they decide to use modestly to make some money day-trading. But instead of burping them out of a portal à la Stargate or Bill & Ted or billions and billions of other films in the space-time continuum, the machine actually makes doubles of them. And it’s when the doubles, who have their own ability to reason and build additional gizmos, start messing with the order of things that life—or whatever version of it Abe and Aaron are experiencing at any given moment—starts to get weird.
Carruth, who shot on Super 16 film that was later blown up to 35 mm, adds chilliness with a grainy, overexposed look and occasional, matter-of-fact narration (“There was value in the thing, clearly”) that sounds like the voice-modulated slow-rap in the Butthole Surfers’ “Pepper.” There’s similar understatement everywhere, in fact, which seems to be Carruth’s way of balancing out the rapid-fire nerdspeak and existential implications: Music is minimal, humor is dry (“You hungry? I haven’t eaten since later this afternoon”), and life outside the project largely ignored—believably so, because only Aaron, with a wife and child, seems to have one, whereas Abe is married to the work.
The film’s most attractive feature, however, is the characters. Carruth and Sullivan (also in his feature debut, though he has some acting experience) make Aaron and Abe the Penn & Teller of science geeks: supersmart, passionate, personable, and aware of their talents but not cocky enough that they can’t still be blown away by what science can do. (Abe, who discovered their project’s time-travel capabilities first, casually asks Aaron if he’d ditch work if Abe promised to show him “the most important thing that any living organism has ever witnessed.”) Best of all, despite their giant brains, the two come off as regular guys, drinking Big Gulps, fantasizing about going back in time to punch their boss, and wondering what the receptionist at the motel where their first incarnations lie low thinks “about two guys who get a room for six hours every day.”
True, Primer’s mysterious resolution may not be a resolution at all, but that’s beside the point: Carruth not only leaves us believing that it is, he also makes thinking about it fun. Nerdiness, it seems, really is contagious.
The Final Cut also makes you think—mostly about why Robin Williams has apparently vowed never to be funny again. Of course, there are bigger ideas in writer-director Omar Naïm’s debut about a memory implant that records the wearer’s life from birth. But the script’s laughingly underdeveloped relationships and forced intensity are begging for a little Aladdin-type riffing instead of Williams’ new stoicism.
Williams stars as Alan Hakman, an in-demand “cutter” who edits lifetimes of footage when a person with an implant dies; the resulting video is then shown at a memorial called a “rememory.” Alan stays busy because of his reputation for cleansing the reputations of others—with a push of a button, for example, the pedophiliac activities of a well-respected company man vanish. Alan has no qualms about “forgiving people long after they can be punished for their sins” because he’s been haunted by what he remembers as a childhood sin of his own, the burden of which makes him enunciate laboriously. Or maybe it’s just in the rules: Cutters, like Asimov’s robots, are governed by a code. Along with binding them to a comparatively uninteresting third dictum, it prevents them from giving away footage or having an implant themselves.
The Final Cut’s Big Conflict, therefore, comes in the form of protesters who picket rememories (chant: “Remember for yourself!”), as well as in the strong-arming of Fletcher (Jim Caviezel), a fellow cutter who wants the high-profile project Alan is working on. (Heated exchange: “Will you forget the code and grow up!” “Some of us still live by the code!”) Naïm also tries to inject dynamism into his leaden movie with an antique-book-store owner named Delila (Mira Sorvino), who is supposed to be Alan’s longtime girlfriend but acts as if she’s just learning what he does for a living. Even if you can get beyond their dippy, first-date-worthy conversation—“What are people’s lives like? Do they make any sense?”—Beauty and the Mortician make a rather unbelievable couple, especially when awkwardly writhing on Alan’s ascetic bed.
Cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, who also worked on The Silence of the Lambs and Signs, matches Williams’ darkness with his trademark gloom, making Alan’s wood-paneled apartment and cutting equipment, especially, look creepy-cool. And even though the attempt to give The Final Cut a man-vs.-himself twist feels amateurish, Naïm does offer a few things to chew on: Are only a person’s good qualities worth remembering? How does time affect your recollections? And, most intriguingly, would you live your life differently if you knew all of your actions were being recorded for the rest of us? Unfortunately, the film’s flaws far outnumber its virtues—which suggests that Naïm might not be taking his own advice about what ends up on film.CP