Assuredly taking its place in a line of cinematic conundra that range from 2001 to Donnie Darko, Primer is targeted directly at the neural centers of young audiences whose horizons have been widened by a semester of theoretical physics or, failing that, a handy hit of blotter. The film, the surprise winner of the Grand Jury Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival, dances on the precipice of terminal obscurity, doling out its rifts in space and time with a purposeful disorientation that might be infuriating were it not so believable. If a pair of moonlighting engineers were to whip up a time-travel device in a suburban garage which is essentially what happens in writer/director Shane Carruth's minimalist think piece it's easy to surmise that this is exactly how their tension-fraught endeavors would look and sound.
Primer worms its way into your good graces by reveling in workaday details that the typical science-fiction flick leaves out. Spouting technobabble with casual (often bewildering) familiarity, inventors Abe (David Sullivan) and Aaron (Carruth) theorize themselves into a landmark discovery: a box that reverses the flow of time for any person or object that's placed inside. Soon, the partners are embarking on experimental journeys into the recent past, setting their lives back 12 hours at a clip to take advantage of certain accrued knowledge like which stocks to invest in before the day's trading closes. But to get to the point where they can exercise such refreshingly practical concerns, Abe and Aaron first have to do a lot of verbal wrestling with the true nature and extent of their miraculous invention. It's a welcome turnaround of Hollywood's textbook science-run-amok scenarios, in which life-changing technologies are accepted and adopted in the wink of an eye.
If Primer pokes into corners similar films traditionally bypass, though, it also omits a lot of narrative connective tissue that would make the film more immediately coherent. As our morally neutral protagonists become seduced by their wonder box's seemingly limitless potential, they start whipping up time paradoxes and other crises that the script barely pauses to explain. If the sight of two Marty McFlys inhabiting the same mall parking lot in Back to the Future made your frontal lobes throb, you'll get a full-on migraine from the obviously calamitous yet subtly (almost subliminally) introduced changes Abe and Aaron gradually wreak on their environment. All but the highest IQs in the theater will require at least two viewings to determine just what in Sam Hill is going on in the final act of this short (77 minutes) feature.
At least you don't have to be a science-fair kingpin to comprehend that the two men are suffering troubling side effects, from mounting paranoia to more physical symptoms like bleeding ears and handwriting that's suddenly as crude as a learning-disabled second-grader's. There's an insidious experiential loop at work here and you're part of it, heading right back to the ticket window to see if the next go-'round will be the one that cracks it for you.