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Friday, October 15, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Mary Brennan
"Primer," an award-winner at Sundance, is an intriguing but flawed little film by a promising first-time director. According to the publicity, it cost $7,000 to make. That's about what it looks like, too: It's a sci-fi film without any visual flash or gimmickry; the special effects take place in your head.
Shane Carruth, a mathematician by training, is the hyphenate behind the wheel. He stars, directs, edits and wrote the script.
Two ambitious white-bread guys, Abe (David Sullivan) and Aaron (Carruth), fresh-faced and forever dressed in ties and shirtsleeves that can't help but evoke Mormon missionaries, are dreaming big start-up dreams. By day they work long hours as young engineers, by night they are developing a prototype of something in Aaron's garage we never really know what, and it doesn't matter.
Along the way, they discover that their jury-rigged contraption, made of PVC pipe and argon gas, does something they hadn't expected: It opens a door on a parabolic little corridor in the space-time continuum, allowing them to travel into the future and back again.
The early part of the film is peppered with overlapping dialogue that will be chillingly authentic to anyone who ever sat in a '90s start-up staff meeting. The principals babble on about how they hope to "get to market," to attract "VC" money all the familiar catchphrases of the Internet Gold Rush days.
Carruth, to his credit, is more interested in the moral ramifications of time travel, in making something more reminiscent of "Memento" than of "Back to the Future." The boys, at first, do the obvious: travel into the future to check the stock market, so they can make a quick killing when they return to the previous day. But simple greed soon gives way to darker and more convoluted motivations.
By the end, the two protagonists live in an endless loop of a world where paranoia gnaws at all the edges; the web of parallel realities they've created becomes too much to manage. They don't seem to know what day it is anymore "I haven't eaten since later this afternoon," says one.
Carruth is definitely a talent to watch; the first half of his film is taut and engaging. The second half falls apart. The center doesn't hold for the film, any more than it does for the characters at one point I thought surely the reels must be out of order, the plot became so baffling. On the other hand, you can't fault the director's ambition. He will certainly be back.
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