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Shane Carruth’s microbudget wonder “Primer” is still a pillar of sci-fi cinema

February 21 through 22, Union South Marquee, multiple showtimes, free.

February 21 through 22, Union South Marquee, multiple showtimes, free. Info

Consider the teaser for Shane Carruth’s microbudget sci-fi art house debut, Primer: “What happens if it actually works?” The question seems less rhetorical than a typical promotional invitation and more like a genuine motivating force in the creation of the film, famously made on 16mm for a mere $7,000 back in 2004 when it won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. With those rigid production constraints, there would seem to be little room for error or embellishment, and yet the film succeeds exponentially in its high-minded, wry, yet nerve-wrecking time travel concept. More than 15 years later, it remains one of the most inspiring thrillers of the twenty-first century.

Carruth immediately drops audiences into a conversation between four engineers, who expound a superconductor box that nullifies gravity. As part of their home cottage industry, their discourse is obviously loaded with nods to physics and the scientific method. But while it may quickly be construed as impenetrable technobabble, their words also convey a unique credibility, as Carruth does not have the luxury of visual effects to enhance the look of the film. Instead, the writer-producer-director leans into his roots as a mathematician and software developer, amalgamating the sophistication of his screenplay with the raw, liberating novelty of creative independence, cleverly punctuating the overlapping dialogues in the editing room with suggestive, recurring visions that summon memories of earlier scenes.

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But for the more analytically inclined, Carruth stays true to the intellectual premise, revealing that engineers Aaron (Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan)’s superconductor operates on a feedback loop where the voltage output is more than the input. Their revelation comes with another “side effect,” as time in the box is gleaned to operate independent and separate from our reality’s standard progression of time. In other words, if an object like a watch is placed into this superconductor (renamed “the fail-safe machine”) for one minute, it actually turns out to be 1,300 minutes. The final act of Primer deals with the fallout of the two men’s curiosities and defiance of scientific laws. Yet, for as much of a convoluted puzzle as the plot may initially appear, Carruth maintains a sharply focused eye on personal detail that would carry over into the realization of the incredible Upstream Color (2013) some nine years later.

If recent rumors are true about Carruth quitting the industry after his next film, it seems all the more necessary to revisit his short but sterling body of work to reassess its influence on a host of imitators like Rian Johnson’s Looper (2012) and Coherence (2014). Graciously, WUD Film is providing a couple late-night chances at the Marquee on a rarely screened DCP.

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