Beneath Sci-fi Sound: Primer, Science Fiction Sound Design, and American Independent Cinema
Abstract: Primer is a very low budget science-fiction film that deals with the subject of time travel; however, it looks and sounds quite distinctively different from other films associated with the genre. While Hollywood blockbuster sci-fi relies on “sound spectacle” as a key attraction, in contrast Primer sounds “lo-fi” and screen-centred, mixed to two channel stereo rather than the now industry-standard 5.1 surround sound. Although this is partly a consequence of the economics of its production, the aesthetic approach to the soundtrack is what makes Primer formally distinctive. Including a brief exploration of the role of sound design in science-fiction cinema more broadly, I analyse aspects of Primer’s soundtrack and sound-image relations to demonstrate how the soundplays around with time rather than space, substituting the spatial playfulness of big-budget Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster sound with temporal playfulness, in keeping with its time-travel theme. I argue that Primer’s aesthetic approach to the soundtrack is “anti-spectacle”, working with its mise-en-scène to emphasise the mundane and everyday instead of the fantastical, in an attempt to lend credibility and “realism” to its time-travel conceit. Finally, with reference to scholarship on American independent cinema, I will demonstrate how Primer’s stylistic approach to the soundtrack is configured as a marketable identifier of its “indie”-ness.