So I saw Primer tonight, at the Glasgow Film Theatre, and came away mightily confused. I'd heard about it first through a couple of reviews. Every now and then you get a science fiction movie with no effects budget: critics hail this remarkable development, while getting confused over having to call it a science fiction movie despite the lack of effects (after all, if it doesn't have special effects, it can't be a science fiction movie, right?): and despite these occasional mini-revolutions Hollywood goes right along churning out an eternal sequence of Disneyesque CGI fantasies that have little to do with what I regard as science fiction.
So it's annoying in the extreme when someone sets out to make a zero budget science fiction film which is clearly full of intelligence and ideas, yet produces something that still left me completely befuddled as to what the hell was going on.
The basic plot is, a couple of engineers working on some project discover they've invented a time machine. It's just a metal box: you sit in it for a couple of hours, and when you come out, you're a couple of hours back in time from when you first entered the box and switched on the machine. Fair enough.
Except much of the movie is done in a particular 'cinema verite' style, which demands that everyone speak at once, with voices constantly overlapping, and those barely discernible over a background of clattering dishes, rushing traffic and noisy offices. As a result, I even had trouble discerning the names of the characters.
That I've managed to figure out as much of the plot as I have is largely down to the fact I'd already had the basic story described to me by Phil Raines at the weekend. I think I know what it's about, but if it demonstrates one thing, it's the value of having actors who speak clearly, and of a script that at all times stresses what the hell is actually going on.
I'm not talking about a dumbed down plot, but this is a film so determined to avoid any of the over-dramatic cliches of so much of Hollywood that it's very, very difficult to get a handle on what in God's name is happening. Even a series of voice-overs don't make it clear what the sequence of events are. There's a character called Rachel who's apparently pretty central to the plot, except I spent so much of this movie leaning forward in my seat trying to understand what the hell anybody was saying, and trying to absorb each piece of information before the next went rushing by, that I still have no idea who she is.
I'm particularly annoyed by this because if there's one thing we really, really do need, it's more low-budget zero effects intelligent science fiction movies. And this is one, I'm sure of it. As soon as somebody explains it to me. Or - and I can't believe I'm saying this - somebody gives the guy enough money to do a major studio remake where he gets to make the incomprehensible finally comprehensible.
It can be done. Look at Pi, still one of the finest science fiction movies of the past couple of decades. I still don't know whether to laugh or cry when people express amazement at the idea it's a sf film - after all, it's not got a big effects budget, has it?