PRIMER, Primer 2004, Primer Film, Shane Carruth, Sundance Film Festival, Sundance winner

Breaking Down Shane Carruth’s Sundance Hit PRIMER

Primer, an independent science fiction film, was released in America on October 8, 2004. The $7,000-budgeted film centers on the unexpected discovery of time travel. It is a film that was directed, written, produced, scored, and edited by the main role player, Shane Carruth. With a running time of 77 minutes, the film is significant for its severely low budget, philosophical implications, complicated technical dialogue, and experimental plot structure.

StudioCanal was the production company of the film, and it was distributed by IFC Films and THINKFIlm. With a box office of $424,760, Primer received the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival of 2004. After that, it obtained a limited release in America and has since enjoyed a cult following.


Aaron and Abe are two engineers who include entrepreneurial tech projects with their day-jobs, working away from Aaron’s garage. In the course of one of such research trials, which involve electromagnetic reduction of the weight of objects, both men unexpectedly find out an “A-B” time loop side-effect. This is an object that proceeds normally, backwards, and then continuous, in such a way that objects are able to abandon the field at some earlier point, or in the present.

Abe polishes this proof-of-concept and constructs a firm time-apparatus (known as ‘the box’), with a size to host a human subject. With the aid of this “box”, Abe travels into his past by six hours. In making this happen, Original-Abe sits in a hotel room without means of communication, in order not to interfere or interact with the outside world. After this, Original-Abe goes inside the “box” and stays there for six hours (which means returning in time by six hours). This turns him into Future-Overlap-Double-Abe that journeys all over town that offers Aaron the proceedings’ explanation, and returns Aaron to the safe self-storage facility accommodating the “box”. At the overlap-timespan ending, Original-Abe is no longer in existence, having gained entry into the “box”, wound back by six hours, and turned into Future-Overlap-Double-Abe for the time remaining.

Abe’s six-hour experiment is repeated multiple times over several days by Aaron and Abe. With foreknowledge of the performance of the market, this experiment leads to beneficial same-day stock. These two men have different personalities; Abe is controlling and cautious, while Aaron is meddlesome and impulsive. These divergent personalities slightly distort their friendship and collaboration. The head of these tensions is when Rachel’s (Abe’s girlfriend) father, Thomas Granger, is encountered at late night and appears mysteriously unshaven, existing in overlap with his innate suburban self. After Aaron pursues him, he goes into a state of comatose, and from theory, Aaron realizes that Granger went inside the “box” at some unknown time in the future, for reasons unknown, with timeline-changing consequences. Abes comes to the conclusion that the danger of time travel is too high, and makes use of a second apparatus (a “failsafe box” he built prior to the experiment’s origin, and continued running secretly), traveling four days back to inhibit the launch of the experiment.

Destruction is brought upon the timeline by cumulative competing interference. Original-Abe is sedated by Future-Abe (so the first time travel experiment won’t be conducted by the former) and encounters Original-Aaron at the bench of a park (in order to discourage him), but discovers that Future-Aaron has reached there first (having pre-recordings of conversations of the past, together with an unobtrusive earpiece), since four days back, he had come with an unconnected “third failsafe box”. As a result of this revelation, Future-Abe is overcome by fatigue and shock and faints.

Both men hesitantly and briefly reconcile. Together, they travel back in time, and experience and reshape an event where Rachel, Abe’s girlfriend was almost murdered by a gun-holding party crasher. After several repetitions, Aaron who already had knowledge of the events of the party, prevents the gunman, making him a local hero. Ultimately, Abe and Aaron separate, and the latter considers a fresh life abroad where he can meddle more with widely for personal benefits, while Abe declares his intention to continue in town and discourage/sabotage the experiment of the “original” box. Abe admonishes Aaron to get going and never come back.

As revealed by an epilogue sequence, there are still several “box-aware” versions of Aaron living and circulating. A minimum of one Future-Aaron possesses mingled knowledge with Original-Aaron (due to voice-recordings, discussions, and a physical altercation that was unsuccessful. Due to this, a minimum of two Aarons now occupys the same timeline, having information of events of future events, in evident difference from Abe, who reaches industrious ends to maintain his Original-Abe in a “pure” state, oblivious of the future. The final scene of the film portrays a completely aware Aaron, directing workers who speak French in the building of what seems to be a “box” in the size of a warehouse.


Although Primer has one of the more excellent science fiction elements, Carruth’s aim was to depict scientific discovery in a manner that is realistic and down to earth. He observes that several of the mightiest historical breakthrough scientific discoveries have occurred accidentally in locations that are not more attractive than the garage of Aaron. Carruth has stated that his intention of the theme of the film was the breakdown of the relationship of Aaron and Abe, due to their inability to contend with the power they had through this technological advancement.

Physics and Science

Primer starts with Aaron and Abe trying to make a device to oppose gravity effects. They nurtured plans for that device out of another development team, but aim to make better the design’s viability. Their major approach to attain this is to reject the coolant bath for the needed superconductors. Instead, they add more to the superconductor’s transition temperature. The machine utilizes superconductors’ property known as “Meissner effect”.

Abe and Aaron need “palladium” to construct their machine. For this reason, they take from a car a catalytic converter which contains a little palladium amount. Also, “Feynman diagrams” is the inspiration behind the principles of time travel found in the film.

The principal photography of Primer occurred over five weeks, in the outer areas of Dallas, Texas. The production of the film was on a budget of $7,000, and five, as the skeleton crew. Together with the other roles he played, Carruth was also the music composer and cinematographer. In the film, he also stars as Aaron, and his friends and family play many other characters in the film. Due to the little budget, a Super 16mm film stock required to be conservatively used. The number of takes was carefully limited and resulted in a shooting ratio as low as 2:1. There was a meticulous storyboarding of every shoot in the film on 35mm stills. An overexposed and distinctive look was created for the film by Carruth, through the use of high-speed film stock, non-neutral color temperatures, fluorescent lighting, and filters. It took two years for Carruth to post-produce the film after shooting. He has since confirmed that the experience he had was so difficult that he nearly ignored the film several times. Primer got released on iTunes and Amazon on October 8, 2004.

Several critics have given Primer positive reviews. It was rated a 68 by Review Aggregator Metacritic, and was rated a “fresh” 73% by Rotten Tomatoes, praising it as dense and obtuse, but very stimulating. Also, the site lists the film as one among the best science fiction films for anyone. The originality of the film further impressed many reviewers such as The Village Voice’s Dennis Lim, Roger Ebert, Ty Burr, and so forth. Also, A.O Scott gave a very impressive review of the film in The New York Times, having enjoyed the film’s reasonable portrayal of scientists at work. The dense dialogue and experimental plot of the film were, however, controversially received. Some of such people who gave controversial reviews of this plot are Mike D’Angelo of Esquire, Scott Tobias, Carina Chocano, Chuck Klosterman, and so forth.

Some members of the major cast in the film include Shane Carruth (major character, Aaron), David Sullivan (as Abe, in the film), Casey Gooden (as Robert, in the film), Anand Upadhyaya (as Phillip, in the film), Carrie Crawford (as Kara, in the film), Samantha Thomson (as Rachel Granger, in the film), and Brandon Blagg (as Will, in the film).

Primer has gone on to win many awards such as the Grand Jury Prize and Alfred P.Sloan Prize.

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