Imagine that you receive a videotape in the mail, and what's on the videotape is a recording of you receiving a videotape in the mail, the very one that's now playing in your VCR. Freaky, no? That, in a nutshell, is the premise behind Primer, first-timer Shane Carruth's intriguing swipe at do-it-yourself sci-fi. Shot on 16-millimeter film for around $7,000, Primer is Groundhog Day without the groundhog - a time-travel movie that takes time-travel as seriously as possible. What are our moral obligations to the past if we can return there? And what are we supposed to do if we meet ourselves coming the other way? Carruth, who in addition to writing and directing the movie stars as Aaron, an inventor with a two-car garage for a laboratory, doesn't really answer these questions, just uses them as a springboard for a paranoid thriller about R & D gone bad.
In other words, Primer is yet another mad-scientist movie, albeit one that employs enough scientific (or is it pseudo-scientific?) jargon to satisfy the U.S. Patent Office. Early on, Carruth builds credibility by making us privy to the kind of discussions that industrial engineers engage in. The language is so abstruse that we don't even try to keep up, but we're somehow able to follow the thread. It seems that Carruth's Aaron and David Sullivan's Abe, while moonlighting from their regular jobs, have created something they call "the box," which runs on two 12-volt batteries and looks like...well, like a box. It isn't clear what "the box" is supposed to do, and the point isn't to further the cause of science. The point is to attract venture capital and make a killing, like the founders of Apple, who also started in a garage. Then "the box" starts acting like a machine - a time-travel machine. Time to build a bigger box.
What happens after that particular task has been performed will be familiar to anyone who's ever spent several hours staring at an M.C. Escher print. Trapped in the time-travel equivalent of a Hall of Mirrors, Aaron and Abe try to find their way out without hurting anybody, including themselves. But the pleasure that Primer offers has less to do with intricate plot twists than with Carruth's feeling for low-rent scientific endeavor. Need copper tubing? Try the back of your refrigerator. To its credit, the movie has the same cobbled-together quality. The closest it ever comes to a special effect is when Aaron and Abe view their "later" selves through binoculars. Like "the box," Primer is a triumph of good ol' American know-how, making do with whatever was lying around. You may have to see it twice to figure out exactly what's going on, but why stop there? All you have is time.