Primer: Understanding the Most Complicated Sci Fi Movie Ever Made
Let’s get this out of the way first—if you haven’t seen 2009 time travel movie Primer yet, stop reading now and go check it out. It’s short (77 minutes), it’s on Netflix streaming, and it is well worth your time. What you will see is one of the coolest, cleverest, and most innovative time travel movies ever made—it’s also by far the most complicated (Seriously, this thing makes Inception look like a fast food commercial). All that complication is where the big fun starts. Since Primer has come out, viewers have studied and struggled, hypothesized and outlined in an attempt to fully understand what exactly happened, and when. And we are going to attempt to explain it all to you!
Below you will find The Mindhut’s handy set of survival tips for understanding Primer and explaining it to those less clever than yourself. We don’t do a scene-by-scene analysis of the story (because that would take at least 50 pages), rather we broke down the major complication areas and then offered thoughts on a few key moments from the film. After reading this, you’ll find your future viewings of Primer filled with way more “Ah-ha” and way less “Huh?” Two things to keep in mind before we get started—the following isn’t going to make a lick of sense if you haven’t seen the film (or at least read through a plot breakdown), also we are about to SPOIL the living crap out of this film, so consider yourself warned.
Here are seven important guidelines to understanding Primer:
1) As complex as the plot is, it can still be reduced to one (long) sentence.
Two friends invent a form of time travel, and though they think they are being smart about using it, within just 5 days, selfishness and shortsightedness lead them to create so many overlapping timelines that they lose control of themselves, their friendship, and the technology.
2) Only a couple characters really matter to the overall plot.
There are just 9 named characters in the film, and of those, you only need to worry about keeping track of 2. Aaron is the dark-haired main character. Abe is the blonde main character. There are other characters, and they do affect the plot at times, but focusing on them will only distract you from the shell game at the center of this.
3) Don’t let the first 10 minutes jam you up.
It’s super technical and it drops you right in the middle of stuff, but these minutes are just there to let you know that these guys were not intentionally trying to invent time travel, and that Aaron is the more impulsive of the two main characters.
4) The time travel has its own set of rules.
Understanding the time traveling rules is a big part of getting the whole thing to make sense. The time machine is a box. You get inside and wait and when you get out it is now the time that the box was originally turned on. That’s essentially it. So if you turn on the box at 9am and then get in at 3pm, you will wait 6 hours and then get out at 9am. Here’s the best diagram we could find for this. Once you get this, there are some obvious conclusions. First, you can only go back in time, never forward. Second, each box can only be used to make a specific trip once (because if it’s been used once, then there is already a guy inside during the whole time that it’s turned on). This second limitation can be worked around by taking a disassembled box with you and reassembling it when you come out. Then you turn it on and you have a second machine that can take you back to that point whenever you are ready. Third, in order to avoid a paradox, you need to hide out during the entire time that the machine is on. That way the time traveler version of you can go around and do things during those hours when he comes out. This is handled by choosing to spend that time in a hotel, in another town, or by gassing or drugging your original self while your time traveler self is out.
5) We are not always watching the same timeline.
In fact, the story has at least 9 timelines and we see scenes from 7 of them. (Here is a rather complex, but insanely well-researched diagram to prove it.) At the very least we know that Abe travels back six hours on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and 4 days on Friday. Aaron travels 6 hours on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and 4 days (at least) twice on Friday. On top of that, we know with certainty that there is other time traveling happening that neither we the audience, nor the main characters know the specifics of (from the Granger incident mentioned below).
6) The characters change very quickly.
This is most noticeable in the last 20 minutes of the film. It’s confusing, but vitally important to the story. The reasons that their personalities and positions seem to change so quickly are that, a) there brains are most likely being damaged by this process, and b) they are going through way more than we are seeing in any given timeline. For example, over the course of 5 days, it’s suggested that Aaron may have lived through as much as two months of time (or more). The point is that by the end even they can’t really be sure of what version they are or what timeline they are in.
7) Some things are specifically meant to be unknown.
For example, as the characters use the boxes, they start to suffer ill effects—notably, their handwriting deteriorates. Why? Because time traveling is messing them up. How? No one knows, and that’s the point. The guys are seeing obvious evidence that something they don’t understand is happening to them, and it isn’t good. Even more dramatic is the scene where the two encounter bearded Granger at minute 56:30. This is one of the most important scenes in the film, and it doesn’t make any sense, but again, that’s the point. Neither of the characters know how Granger learned about time travel, which box he used, why he went back in time, or why whenever he gets close to Aaron, Granger passes out. All they know is that something crazy happened in some timeline that led to this outcome, and that almost certainly Abe and Aaron put it in motion. The narrator-Aaron specifically says that the explanation for this situation is unknowable.
That should be enough to get you comfortably from one end of the plot to the other, but just in case, here are 6 specific scenes you might want to look out for.
00:15—The narrator on the phone is Aaron, but not the one you see through most of the film. This is the second Aaron (in the grey hoodie) who comes back to drug the first Aaron. He is also the Aaron we see in France at the end. He is calling the original Abe.
20:00—The time travel has started. Even though it it's going to be another 16 minutes before you see a character actually use a box on screen, you are already seeing characters from different timelines interacting. (That's time travel for ya!) Notice that Aaron has his earpiece in for most of the following scenes.
25:00—This is the explanation of how the time travel actually works, but that doesn't matter, because it's just pretend. Though some of the physics here is real, most is made up (or we’d be able to time travel), so don’t get bogged down by the details.
43:40—When Aaron says, "She thinks there are rats in the attic," the sound she is hearing is the original version of Abe drugged in the attic.
51:10 and 53:40—This is the same call coming to the same phone, because there are two phones and two Aarons in this timeline (actually, at least 3 Aarons). This is the first time we know that the timeline parallel has been broken (because Aaron answers the phone in one timeline, but doesn't in the other). The fact that this break doesn’t cause problems is what gives the guys the courage to try the plan that they outline at 55:00.
1:04:00—This is where the big reveal happens, that Aaron wasn’t listening to March Madness on his ear bud, he was listening to a copy of all the conversations that he had had the last time he went through the week (which was the at least the second time he’d been through the week). This (and the companion scene at 20:00) is also the only time we know we are seeing the same moment in two separate timelines.
As a final thought, it’s well worth pointing out that this film was made for $7,000 dollars, which is an inconceivably low number. If it had been made for a thousand times that amount, it would still be considered a low-budget movie by modern studio standards. That means that every possible shortcut had to be taken in making the film. It also means that director Shane Carruth had an unbelievable amount of control over the choices he made, because he was also the writer, the producer, the lead actor (Aaron), the editor, and the composer of the soundtrack. This film simply couldn’t exist in the studio system because no one in their right mind would make a Hollywood movie this complex (because Hollywood films are based on the concept that most viewers are some combination of dumb and lazy).
Revel in the awesomeness of this movie, because there aren't a whole lot like this. If you've beaten your brain against Primer until you think you understand it pretty well, then take heart, because Shane Carruth’s second film, Upstream Color, just came out on Netflix streaming this month!
See something we missed? Did we get something wrong? Let us know in the comments.