VIDEO: Primer (2004)

We mark the release of Upstream Color by looking at writer-director Shane Carruth’s debut Primer, the dense and confusing story of two scientists who accidentally create a time machine in their garage. Dr. O’Boogie takes a deeper look at the twisted tale of multiple timelines that sent scores of people to the internet desperately searching for an explanation of the plot.

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  • spiff2268

    I’m glad I wasn’t the only one left scratching his head at the end of this one.

    • I think *everybody* scratches their heads after the first (and second, and third…) time they watch this. Anybody who claims to understand it after one viewing has gotta be full of it.

  • Thomas Stockel

    It’s always a bad sign when the only person who understands the movie is the guy who wrote, directed and starred in it. This is why having someone else collaborating with you in some way with some level of power/influence is a good thing. If anything you’ve got someone there to point to a part of the script and say “What the fuck is this supposed to mean?”.

  • I think more engineers need to make movies.

    Hey, that’s my cue :3

    You got me curious about the guy’s new project, sadly tho I’m pretty sure it’s never coming to Mexico until there’s like a wide DVD release or something…

    • John Wilson

      It seems like the movie is going to be about the choices a couple make while on the way to maturity. You going to see various choices they make being act out at the same time. Upstream might me water. Water color. This means their colors going to change. Just a thought:).

    • Yeah, it’s obvious this movie was made by an engineer and not a filmmaker. The script is very… constructed. Not much of it comes naturally from the characters themselves.

      You might be able to watch Upstream Color on demand in a few weeks through their website:

      I’ll probably wait and watch it on demand myself. The nearest theater showing it is a couple hours’ drive for me, and I don’t know if it’s worth it for a 90-minute movie that I’m not going to understand.

      • MichaelANovelli

        Oh, that’s no fun. Hell, when the movie theater up near Fort Drum mysteriously closed for seven months, Mr. Scratch and I used to drive all the way to Syracuse every weekend to get our movie fix! Where’s your sense of adventure?

  • Cameron Vale

    So it’s more concerned with dropping clues to a riddle than making any kind of sense. Like Encyclopedia Brown or something.

  • John Wilson

    What does he mean by not understanding the movie. Does he mean the themes. I got a few of the themes of the movie on first watch. The easiest way to explain the box is,it pops out a clone like person and sends you back in time. The movie was about how two people messed up the time steam and realize who the other person is. One the “hero”wants to fix the time stream by making sure they never invented the box. The other wants to use the box to take over the world by creating more of him shelf and others like him while controlling time. This will eventually cause the Charters to slowly disappear into a whole new timeline where the box is never created. The whole movie is about what if. The clones are what if one of them made a different choice. They are slowly getting time haze. That when your mind starts to slip because of being off the main timeline for so long. I thought the movie was overrated with a lot of science jargon to make itself seem smart.You ever seen time crimes?

    I think the moral of the story is:be careful with time:).

    • Nine Breaker

      Time Crimes was alot easier to follow. This just gave me a headache. A coworker of mine recommended this to me, saying it would “blow my mind”. After I grumbled at him how overly pretentious it was, his defense was that “you have to watch it more than once and read the online charts to “get it””.

      I agree the first half was good, and I liked how the time machine looked like it could be based in reality. But then it became a chore to watch.

      • I’d say to your coworker, that if you have to look at online charts and supplemental materials to make sense of a movie, it kinda fails as a movie. I felt the same way about Donnie Darko (I think I said as much in the script for that review), but I think the difference is, with Darko it’s obvious the director consciously *chose* to make the movie confusing, whereas with Primer you get the feeling the director got in over his head and time/money was running out, and that’s a big part of why the movie ended up the way it did.

        By the way, awesome avatar… “You had your chance, and you gobbled its balls!”

        • I dunno, I’d argue that the extra material makes the movie richer, like, take for example Cloverfield or District 9, there was a gigantic viral campaign behind those two, setting up the universe and events from the movie, of course, the difference between them and say, Primer or Donnie Darko is that you don’t need that material to enjoy the movie, it makes the movie more enjoyable sometimes yes, but it’s not required.

          Still, I dunno, does it fail as a movie if people obsessed with puzzles do find themselves entretained and intrigued?

          • Nine Breaker

            I think that’s the difference there; Cloverfield, District 9, and I’ll even throw in the Star Wars movies had an extended universe that could be ignored and it wouldn’t hinder your enjoyment of the movie if you didn’t see them or know about them. Primer seems to thrive on the fact that in order to “get it”, you need to do research. I’m sure there are some out there who saw the movie once and will say they have a complete understanding of it. But to me, its second half is where it becomes convoluted and tedious and has the greatest chance of losing its audience.

            Time Crimes is at least conceptually similar, and maybe it was due to a better pacing. But I found that movie’s plot alot easier for me to follow, and I was able to at least understand Hector’s reasoning and its conclusion felt like it had closure. Unlike Primer, where I was left going “huh?” at the screen.

          • Time Crimes is a much better movie. It does have its own flaws (e.g., random sexual assault happening for no reason), but you can tell it was made by someone with a lot more experience writing/directing movies. I might review that one eventually… I’m kinda surprised that somebody like Renegado or Phil Buni hasn’t already gotten around to it.

          • Well, unlike Donnie Darko, Cloverfield, etc. there was never any kind of viral campaign for Primer. So there’s no official explanation you can look up, other than what some reviewers figured out on their own.

            But even if there was, I still think it fails, in that only a small group of people will want to do research to understand a movie. Yeah, the movie works for that small group, but most people who see Primer are bored, confused, and totally lost by the end of it.

          • $36060516

            The downside of the Cloverfield campaign (at least for me) was that it raised my expectations higher than the movie was able to deliver. I still liked it for what it was, but a lot of the corporate conspiracy (Slusho) mystery alluded to in the campaign had no part of the movie, which was more straightforward.

        • Nine Breaker

          Yeah, when he told me that I pretty much just facepalmed, and vowed never to trust his choice in movies ever again. Overall, the concept was good, and I hope someone else decides to try it again. Decent time travel movies are getting harder to come by nowadays.

          Also, I wanted to say as a longtime lurker and new commenter that I love the work you guys (and ladies) do (found this place out thanks to Mendo and The Film Renegado)

          Wonder Showzen was ridiculously funny. Taken away before its time sadly.

          “The only difference between “Special” and “Wonderful”, is…Tyler.”

          • danbreunig

            Well hey, welcome aboard, Nine Breaker! I’m the same thing myself–long-time fan and lurker for nine years now and more so since AB switched over to video reviews en masse. I’ve been in these forums off and on since just this January and I doubt I’ll stop anytime soon. I love all these guys and gals here and what they make–they’re all like a class in school I wish I could’ve grown up in.

          • Nine Breaker

            Hehe thanks. My first exposure to internet reviewers was when a friend sent me a link to AVGN’s Simon’s Quest and TMNT review way back in ’07. After that, it just snowballed. I’d either randomly stumble across another, or I’d see someone cameo in another video.

            Nowadays, I usually lurk around TGWTG, Agony Booth, or Blip in general, checking out any that I missed.

            I’m just happy to see others have similar taste in movies to me. But then again, I’m an unapologetic fan of Kung Pow: Enter The Fist, so I may just be weird :P

    • From what I can tell from all the online explanations, whenever they travel back in time, a new timeline is created. So it’s not exactly “clones”, more like versions of themselves from parallel timelines. But then the movie does sort of treat them like clones, because eventually they have trouble writing words, bleeding ears, etc. The movie sort of implies they become copies of copies, which doesn’t really make sense and is never followed up on anyway.

  • It wasn’t just a confusing story; I really had trouble hearing what the people were saying and had to watch the movie with captions on to make sense of the dialogue.

    I have to agree that this is probably more an example of a new film-maker trying to make a complicated plot and then getting in over his head.

    I know he has a new movie out;
    I wonder if he’s learned anything in the meantime?