Primer’ is primetime for bad headlines

“Primer”Think Film Inc.Written and directed by Shane CarruthStarring Carruth, David Sullivan, Casey Gooden, and Anand UpadhyayaRated PG-13/78 minutesOpened in theaters Nov. 12 at the Broadway Centre

As head-scratchers go, “Primer” will have you burrowing into your skull. It’s an impenetrable Rubik’s cube of a movie about a group of white-collared, tech-savvy software engineers who build a time machine in their garage. Sounds like a summer project for Calvin and Hobbes-only these guys use a bigger box (of the non-cardboard variety).

Hell, they don’t even know it’s a time machine at first. Aaron (Shane Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) work into the wee hours of the night, piecing things together, butting heads and rubbing chins.


They know they’re creating something-possibly something lucrative-but confound it all, just what is it? It looks like a Mr. Coffee machine crossbred with a nuclear reactor. Turns out the machine secretes a protein that would normally take days to form. Time passes much quicker inside the box than outside, or something like that.

These characters talk in the sort of shorthand, rat-a-tat-tat Geek Speak that nobody outside of MIT would understand. It’s a bit overwhelming, but that’s OK. Like an episode of “E.R.,” we may not get the terminology, but we get the behavior beneath the words.

They build a bigger machine, big enough to climb inside and travel backward in time. And what do they do with their future knowledge? Prevent a murder? Save a suicide jumper? No sir, this is not your grandpa’s “Early Edition.”

Like the good, capitalistic middle Americans they are, Aaron and Abe play the stock market! That scribbling noise you hear is Martha Stewart taking notes.

Pretty straightforward so far, right? But wait-movies that hurtle through time and space always toy with paradoxes and “Primer” whores itself out to them. Aaron and Abe must time their journeys just right so they can avoid their past selves.

But what harm would that do? Would future Abe cease to be if he locked his double in the closet? Or do they exist as two completely separate beings on one timeline? If Aaron’s cell phone rings, is the call from the past or the future? Can phone calls travel through time? Would you incur roaming charges for that?

It’s fun to ask these questions, but only for so long. Paradox after paradox and twist after twist pile up until the sheer glut of plot makes “Primer” absolutely incomprehensible.

There’s a whole storyline about a shotgun at a party that will blow right past you. And when the motivations of the characters turn a little…crazy…it’s unclear why and how they came to such drastic decisions.

I seriously doubt a second viewing would help confused viewers. Writer/director Shane Curruth (who also stars as Aaron) has crafted a screenplay too tricky for its own good. His characters look tired and confused after countless trips down the space-time continuum. Boy oh boy, can we sympathize with that.

“Primer” made a big splash at Sundance last January where it won “Best Drama,” a loopy decision caused by altitude sickness, no doubt.

Here’s a movie that never holds your hand, never explains anything in laymen terms, never looks back to see if you’re still there. It’s a brave decision that doesn’t pay off. Movies like “Memento” and “The Usual Suspects” had brain-bending structures too, but we eventually had some idea of where we were, what we were watching and why the characters did what they did.

The only thing Carruth’s movie is prime for are vague and sparse ambiguities, which, in turn, primes everyone for boredom.

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