Primer: The Movie


Some time ago, Freelancer recommended Primer to me somewhere in the comments of this blog. I don’t recall the exact post, but the movie landed on my “to watch” list. I just wanted to say, thanks a lot buddy – you practically broke my brain with this thing. I watched it few weeks ago and I still can’t figure out what in the Holy Fuck happened in that movie. Some movies suffer from plot holes – this one suffers from plot recursion. It is essentially a macro story, that overwrites itself in real time, recursively. Which is not really a bad thing – it is a good thing, but holly shit – it does take you a while to figure it all out.

But let me start from the beginning. Primer is a movie about a time machine. Yes, it is an overplayed cliche that was exploited by Hollywood millions of times. But Primer is not a Hollywood production. It is an indie movie with a a total budget of $7,000. With a budget that tight, you know that the story must be good for the film to make any kind of impact. You know that Primer made an impact, because it has been released on a DVD, it is on IMDB and it has it’s own Wikipedia page that was not taken down by the relevance natzis.

As you may expect, the time travel depicted in Primer does not look spectacular in any way. The time machine is essentially a box. You turn it on, wait 6 hours then crawl into it, wait another six hours. After that time you emerge from the box exactly 6 hours earlier and you get to re-live them. If you are confused, here is a picture I lifted from Wikipedia:

Primer Time Travel

If you still don’t get it, re-read that sentence few times, and do few loops around the picture. It will get clear eventually. The gist is that the machine lets you go 6 hours back in time but only if it has been on for that 6 hours. The protagonists build it in their garage, and then decide to test it. At first their test are innocent – they buy some stocks, bet on a ball game or two and etc. They do it to see if it is even possible to change the future this way. And it turns out that it is. Then something happens in their personal lives, and one of the characters decides to use the machine to fix it. He also discovers that the machine can be stacked (box inside of a box) to travel even further in time. What follows is a logical but jumbled series of events caused by two protagonists using the time machine to independently modify the time line, back stab each other and try to figure out mysterious events caused by their own interferences. The problem is that what we see is the merely the latest “version” of the movie time line. There are things happening on screen that make no sense until you see the characters going “into the box” much later.

What compounds the problem is that at multiple points the protagonists catch onto their own meddling, and change their minds about it creating logical paradoxes. The time line is effectively fractured into at least 8 distinct continuities – if not more – each of which interacts with and modifies the previous. I’m still not sure what exactly happened in the movie but I sure as hell enjoyed the ride. I’m not the only one. Google for primer timeline and you will see just how many people out there are arguing over minutiae details of the plot, trying to piece the story together.

Or you can just look at this visual time line to see how incredibly complex and involved it is. You should be warned that it obviously contains major spoilers so I’m just gonna show you a blurry thumbnail here and you will need to click on it to read it:

Primer Timeline
click to enlarge; source

If you are one of those people who thinks that movies should be entertaining, and not thought provoking then this movie is not for you. In fact, this blog is probably not for you, cause I love movies that require me to pay attention, think and go online to argue with people about what it meant. Primer will twist your brain into a pretzel, and leave you dazed for days. I’d say it is a lot of value considering the extremely low budget.

I highly recommend it. Watch it with a like minded friend, or a significant other and I guarantee you that for the next 3-4 days you will be revisiting the plot, drawing continuity diagrams and arguing over exactly how many Aarons were coexisting in the movie in total. Or not. But sometimes it may be hard not to.

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12 Responses to Primer: The Movie

  1. Matt` UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Well damn, and I thought Memento was a fairly effective mindfuck (watched that recently)

    I might give this a look if I’m in the mood to be confused.

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  2. freelancer SWEDEN Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    Yay, front page!

    Anyway, I’m glad you watched it, and I’m really glad you liked it. Watched it twice myself, and I’m still not sure what happened :P Maybe I should watch it again.

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  3. Nathan UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    > I still can’t figure out what in the Holly Fuck happened in that movie.
    I think you mean “holy fuck”. Holly fuck would be painful ;)

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  4. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    @Matt` – Yup, just a side note. Memento had a huge budget compared to Primer and thus is much more polished, and effective. Keep that in mind when watching the movie. It is a whole different experience.

    @freelancer – thanks for the recommendation! I’m glad you mentioned it. :)

    @Nathan – LOL! Holly fuck would be painful indeed. Typo fixed.

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  5. Ian Clifton UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    It’s worth noting that Netflix has this as an “Instant Movie” so I might have to actually boot my laptop into Windows in the next few days to check it out.

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  6. alex UNITED STATES Safari Mac OS says:

    you don’t have to have windows for that anymore. they have a mac beta now. just watched the movie on my macbook about 20 minutes ago

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  7. Ironmahatma UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    I really like your timeline. I watched the movie once around the time it hit DVD. I didn’t follow very well, but I was *very* intrigued.

    In the last 2 months, I got a netflix subscription and had the opportunity to re watch this movie several times. I tried to visualize what was going on in my own head before “googling” explanations and timelines.

    From what I imagine, your timelines fit very nicely, except for *maybe* a couple of places. I say *maybe* because, as you say, there’s literally tons of room for discussion, and perhaps argument if you like to fight as much as I do.

    With that said, I again affirm that your timelines are very, very great at explaining what goes on. Yet, I feel they are slightly off somehow. I cannot say more specifically how, because I have not tried to detail the timelines by hand (or by paper and pencil). But, while watching the movie simultaneously with these timelines, some things don’t line up very well.

    It’s hard to exactly say which things don’t line up, but I think these points occur where the recursive paradoxes jump in to write, re-write, and over-write the previous timelines, as you have already indicated as the cause for general confusion. FASCINATING!

    I feel your timelines are very, very close. I guess my gut feeling doubts surface with respect to 1) when exactly Mr. Granger comes in, 2) How Aaron attempts to gain “control” over a timeline by bringing A(0) and B(0) through Failsafe(0), 3) rearrangement of boxes, and 4) who exactly has control over the macro failsafe (it could be Abe or Aaron depending on what clues you look at).

    Let me address #3 as my biggest concern. I thought one of the box rules was to not disturb any box in any way once it had been powered up. I would really like to see how your derived timelines might change if this rule were strictly adhered to. Of course, the statement from Aaron rings in my ears that boxes are in fact *not* one-time-use only, but are “recyclable”. I wonder if it is this statement that inspires the idea that boxes A(0) and B(0) are collapsed and transported through Failsafe(0). I can definitely see Aaron entering Failsafe(0) soon after discovering it in order to gain “control” over a timeline. But, perhaps there is a new timeline that results from Aaron’s manipulations (perhaps at the dire expense of some other version of himself) over his own box to create a failsafe for his *crazy-exbf-shotgun-wannabe-hero* experiment.

    I think this is bolstered by the fact that early on, Aaron and Abe must trust each other to attempt the initial box experiments. In other words, either man cannot run his experiments individually because he may not be sure of the consequences until a failsafe has been setup to provide and escape from a botched experiment. Thus, the first failsafe to be setup (by Abe, presumably by your timelines), should not be altered in any way by either person (I assume their scientific/engineering minds would reason that this is the very reason the very single *original* failsafe was setup).

    Could this variation explain Abe’s ability to travel back before Aaron’s failsafe and arrive at the park conversation and pass out instead of following Aaron’s pre-recorded *prescience*? Aaron was not willing to destroy to MACRO failsafe represented by Abe’s original Fasilsafe(0). No one tries to exit at the start of this failsafe. And, when Abe does exit at the start of the original failsafe, he passes out because he is so exhausted from his very, very long travel from point “B” to point “A” (the start of the failsafe, very far into the past with respect to where Abe feels the failsafe needs to be used).

    I think your timelines hit many points spot on. For example, your timelines explain the different versions of characters with earpieces (like timelines where no one has an earpiece, just Aaron with one, and Aaron and Abe have one when they try the *shotgun experient*).

    Point #4: One incongruity that sticks in my mind is that there are clues near the very beginning of the movie that seem to indicate that Aaron is goading Abe into building a man-sized box (but Aaron has no earpiece). He wants to rush through experiments that indicate the time-travel capabilities of their device (flipping switches, etc.). It seems like Aaron wants Abe to build devices so that experiments can be built around later Failsafe box versions. Could this theory lead to a version of Aaron that records conversations, leaves those recording to another later version of himself, and escapes to another country to carryout warehouse sized experiments? This theory might be backed by the fact that *ALL* early work on the device occurs in Aaron’s garage. He basically has control over *EVERYTHING* in that garage right from the get-go. He also has personal access to some of the parts manufactured at his company without need for purchasing them (as Abe thinks they will need to). He very well could have built some macro failsafe independent of the the majority of the movie scenes. It is Aaron that first explains to Abe how to feed energy to the device, then cut power and let the device feed itself. Abe jumps in later in one of these timelines to confront Aaron in the park but passes out due to the length of time-jump.

    Pleas excuse the length of this post. This is the first site I came across (that I liked) in my first attempt to find an explanation for Primer. I certainly haven’t spent the time to debate or derive by hand what I believe to be are valid timelines. But I appreciate your version! Thanks and happy holidays!

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  8. Ben NEW ZEALAND Safari Mac OS says:

    Hey, I just came across your post when I was looking up Primer, since I heard about it but didn’t know what it was. Thanks!

    If you like, this might interest you:
    The lower right chart depicts ‘Primer’.

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  9. marchella UNITED STATES Danger HipTop says:

    Yowsers!!!! Just watched the movie, and me brain is ackin’ mate!!!! Wooooooh. Gotta watch it like 10 more times. Its gonna be a long nite!!!!

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  10. Pingback: Response to Critics of my Movie Criticism « Terminally Incoherent WordPress

  11. peter UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Great review and explanation of Primer.. I made a simplified version myself that also attempts to clear up some of the confusion. Hope it’s helpful

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  12. Tivep INDIA Google Chrome Windows says:

    Here’s a neat step by step walk through of each of the timelines that get created by Aaron and Abe.
    This really helps appreciate this tightly budgeted movie better: d.html

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