Indie "intellectual thriller" works in precisely the reverse ways one might expect: Its assured visual and tech presentation is far more impressive than the half-realized character/narrative elements. Cool-looking sci-fi puzzle is a great calling card that will require considerable distrib faith to travel beyond the fest circuit.

It’s hard to swallow the claim from the young Dallas-based makers of “Primer” that prior to its production, they didn’t have a clue how to operate a camera, edit, do foley work, etc., since this indie “intellectual thriller” works (and doesn’t work) in precisely the reverse ways one might expect: Its assured visual and tech presentation is far more impressive than the half-realized character/narrative elements. Cool-looking sci-fi puzzle — reminiscent of “Altered States” among others, but minus the fantasy visuals, action or dramatic payoff — is a great calling card that will require considerable distrib faith to travel beyond the fest circuit.

Repeat viewings might reveal more insight into the narrative, though how many viewers will feel so compelled is questionable. Introduced in a blur of scientific and tech talk that seldom lets up and often overlaps, protags are four young white-collar engineering types. Outside their regular corporate jobs, they get together to brainstorm ideas for potential get-rich-quick inventions.

Now it’s Robert’s (Casey Gooden) turn to pick the project; Aaron (Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) are markedly unenthusiastic about it. Yet latter duo are the ones who become obsessed and secretive when the mystery apparatus (constructed of parts from household appliances, car engines and Wal-Mart shelves) begins demonstrating most unusual abilities.

Precisely what “it” can “do” remains just that vague for some time, as Aaron and Abe — shutting out the others entirely — grow consumed by their findings. It eventually emerges that the whatsit, when crawled into, allows a kind of short-term time travel, in which the travelers’ doubles can go back some hours, changing the course of events.

In script’s tangled, talky progress, however, this stunt rarely finds vivid illustration, with one set piece — in which the heroes travel back to stop an aggrieved man from raiding his ex’s birthday party with a shotgun — staged as a non-event.

Their newfound ability to live “36 hour days” exacts a physical and mental toll on Aaron and Abe. But since they’re able to cover their tracks, no one else notices — a tactical error in a movie already low on distinct characters and suspense. Despite its shortcomings, “Primer” remains watchable thanks to Carruth’s dense and intriguing filmmaking. Visuals feature arresting use of frames within the frame, disorientingoverlighting, and color distortion. Sound mix, music and editing (all also credited to writer-helmer) are likewise intricately layered. In being self-taught, Carruth seems to have arrived at a rulebook-breaking style genuinely his own. The question now — as it was with a comparable first feature, Daryl Aronofsky’s “Pi” — is whether he can transfer that semi-experimental dynamism to less insular material, a la “Requiem for a Dream.”

Perfs by apparently amateur cast are just fine, given that they’re not asked to demonstrate much individual personality or emotion. Tech aspects are remarkably polished on a supposedly miniscule budget; blowup from Super 16 to 35mm is excellent.

Primer

Production

A Primer Movie Ltd. production. Produced, directed, written, edited by Shane Carruth.

Crew

Camera (color, Super 16mm to 35mm), Anand Upadhyaya, Daniel Bueche; music, Carruth; production, sound designer, Carruth. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 17, 2004. Running time: 78 MIN.

With

Shane Carruth, David Sullivan, Casey Gooden, Anand Upadhyaya, Carrie Crawford.

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