September 21, 2005

The The Hell With The Sci-Fi Canon Project Project

This is wildly out of proper chronological order, but I've just been reminded of a movie I need to review. It's a sci-fi movie which is so far from being a part of the abovementioned Canon that I had to invent a new project to justify writing a review of it.

The movie is called Primer (release year: 2003). I watched it a couple of months ago on Jacob's suggestion, knowing nothing about it except that it was a low-budget, independently-produced sci-fi movie. That usually adds up to disaster; just watch a few episodes of MST3K and you'll see what kind of awful things have been done to audiences in the name of independent sci-fi. But an essential point has to be made: science fiction is not made of pretty visuals and impressive special effects. Science fiction is made of novel ideas and skillful storytelling. You can do that as well, or as badly, for $7,000 as for $30,000,000.

On to the plot. There's a synopsis here, but you should probably know that I'm still struggling with the question of whether that synopsis constitutes a spoiler. In case you don't want to risk it, I'll give you the most vague plot summary possible. Two guys, tech-geek-inventor types, invent something in their garage that they didn't mean to make and don't quite understand. It takes them, and us, half the movie to be sure of what it is they've made, but the possibilities for using it are extremely compelling. They try, and wind up over their heads, and try to fix it, and wind up over over over their heads. It's not a movie about our creations turning into monsters that destroy us. It's not a movie about monsters, period. It's a movie about science, which is a thing that gets really hard to understand really fast. That's it.

Let's cut a few words out of that sentence. It's a movie about science, that gets really hard to understand really fast. The GreenCine reviews, and my own opinion, are pretty much unanimous on this point: it's confusing. It doesn't help that for $7,000 you don't get crystal-clear closeups of people's faces during key lines that are delivered with all the perfect intelligibility of the fiftieth take, but that's just icing on the cake. It's a complicated, twisty plot filled with technical details (which I suspect of having not been intended to be understandable) crammed into quite a short movie with confusion as a main theme. Don't go watching it when you're in the mood for fun, mindless entertainment. Watch it when you don't have the Rosetta Stone handy to decode but you could just about be in the mood to do so.

You may love it; you may need to go back and re-watch it (the special features, which I neglected to watch before returning the movie, are said to clear things up wonderfully); you may get annoyed and decide to wait until it comes out in print. These are all fair. But to paraphrase that omnipresent bumper sticker, if you're not impressed, you're not paying attention.

One last comment: I considered comparing Primer's style to that of Nine Queens, the unusually slow and satisfying heist movie for which I am inexplicably the number one Google result. I decided against it, then read through a GreenCine member list called "puzzle movies" and found them both on it. Ha! Go watch 'em both. You'll be glad.

Posted by dianna at September 21, 2005 02:35 PM