Lucy Ives

Arts Writing
On Shane Carruth & Primer

Primer (2004) asks what happens when history is always hanging in the balance

Primer is a film by US director, actor and writer Shane Carruth. Shot independently on a US$7,000 budget in 2004, it was released in cinemas in 2007 and has since garnered a cult following. It concerns the accidental invention of a time machine by two entrepreneurial engineers who labour away at a box-like contraption in a garage start-up (that mythic American site) on the anonymous outskirts of Dallas. Although the plausibility of the science at stake is not crucial to the viewer’s immersion in the situation, Aaron (Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan)’s device at first seems to be a means of countering gravity; its ability to transport them back in time is a secondary discovery. For Carruth, on the other hand, the film’s science is crucial. So devoted is Primer to impenetrable engineer-speak and avoidance of plot-related exposition that it has spawned a mini-subgenre of explanatory videos and other dissections online. And, although it is ostensibly an exploration of what might happen if you had the ability to go back in time, it also serves as a perfect time capsule of the malaise of US President George W. Bush’s second term.

In Primer, Aaron and Abe tell each other that they want to use the time machine to game the stock market. Their main source of solidarity in this scheme is that neither can pinpoint what exactly makes the device work, although each privately comprehends that, in order to avoid catastrophe, he must control the/a past in which there is a ‘fail-safe’ machine that can be used to destroy all future machines and, therefore, prevent the very discovery of time travel. Abe believes that he is in command of the one and only fail-safe; however, it eventually becomes clear that Aaron is one step ahead of – and behind – him.

The infinitely regressive narrative arms race to control the fail-safe is hard to perceive in the film itself, given that it proceeds according to a standard linear plot. By the time the viewer realizes what is going on, Aaron and Abe have replicated themselves multiple times and exist in a universe in which it is possible not only to change the past but to kill oneself and carry on living. This strenuously unsimplified depiction of the effects of unfettered recursion is about more than just best buddies under late capitalism and weird science. Rather, it allegorizes a negative fantasy about historical consciousness that was endemic to the early 2000s, during the time of the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq – an era which presages the current age of fake news, as well as the combatting of manufactured narrative through public protests, the making-real through collective presence.

Primer trades in narrative spleen. The characters develop extraordinarily pessimistic relationships – not just with each other, but with the notion of life lived on a unique, unrepeatable timeline. For the two time travellers, all events become mutable and suspect, losing their intrinsic value. Here story, too, is unimportant: the only thing that matters is strategy. Existence becomes as non-narrative as it is agonistic, with time serving the most meagre of purposes – as the passive substrate in which Aaron and Abe are at war. Aaron and Abe’s existential battle concerns origins. Each wants to be in possession of the determining fail-safe. The time traveller who controls this device can render his partner entirely unaware of the disruptive Pandora’s box to which the garage has given rise and, therefore, prevent time travel from being invented. He who emerges from the fail-safe has the power to create a plot and a future in which he can claim, borrowing the all-too-familiar trope: ‘It was only a dream!’ The question is: who will have the privilege of determining what shall have become real? It’s not writing history that I’m talking about here, metaphorically speaking, but the invention of the very media and language that allow someone to write it. What would the present look and feel like, the film asks, if such radical forms of control over history were, in fact, hanging in the balance?


Date: September 1, 2020

Publisher: frieze

Format: Print, web

Genre: Nonfiction
Link to the article.
This article appears in the print edition of frieze, September 2020, issue 213, with the title "Reverse Forecast."


frieze September 2020.


On site.


Shane Carruth, Primer, 2004. Courtesy: StudioCanal.

1.3 MB (701 words) - 09:38, 14 September 2020