A Primer Movie Primer

Shane Carruth's Primer is a mindjob movie lover's mindjob. "I'm starving, I haven't eaten since later this afternoon..." IMDB
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A Primer Movie Primer

Primer is one of the greatest movies of all time – and the odds are, you’ve never even heard of it. If you have, the odds of your actually finishing the movie are fairly low. And if you did, the odds of your understanding what you just saw are about near zero. So much so, that I featured it as my number one Mind Bending movie of all time. But if it is such a complicated movie can we possibly wrap our minds around it? Well, I’ve realized there are several key insights that you need to understand before it becomes accessible. I’ll walk through each one – and then hopefully this brilliant movie will make more sense to you.

So without further ado, A Primer Movie Primer.

But first – let me say the obvious – this Primer walk through is LACED with spoilers beginning to end. It has more spoilers in it than the movie itself. If that makes any sense at all. So, if you have not seen this movie – just stop. Last I checked the entire movie was out on YouTube just waiting to be watched for free. Its viewable on Netflix and purchasable on Amazon. So just stop – go watch the movie – and then come back and continue reading. This post won’t be going anywhere anytime soon?

Primer Definition

PRIM-ER 1 – A book that covers the elementary elements of a subject.
PRIM-ER 2 – A cap or tube containing a small amount of explosive used to detonate the main explosive charge of a firearm or mine.

Shane Carruth (the savant-like writer, director and producer of the ultra-low budget movie) has said that he originally named the movie Primer1.  But apparently no one understood that definition.  And so it naturally migrated to Primer2.  Both definitions are fitting, but I tend to pronounce it as Primer1, seeing as though it was Shane’s original intention.  And also because have always loved the word, regardless of who may not understand it.

A Primer Movie Primer Overview

A Primer Overview –

So he we go, the beginning of our Primer Movie Primer – so exciting!  We are away!  The movie begins with four friends working out of a garage in the evenings after finishing work at their day jobs. They are all hoping to make it big by developing a product with wide appeal in the hopes that they can get venture funding to expand their business. There is quite a bit of discontentedness by Aaron and Abe because they don’t believe Phillip and Robert are using the garage on inventions that will bear any fruit. Abe and Aaron decide they will begin working on their own in the hopes of making some progress without Robert or Phillip.

Abe begins to make significant progress fairly quickly as he begins dismantling key parts of a car and refrigerator in order to get the parts necessary to move forward. Quickly Abe notices that gravity is effected by the device and the power consumption necessary to run the device once it is spun up reduces dramatically. In the proceeding weeks Abe notices that a weeble-wobble put into the device begins collecting algae or some sort of growth on it. When taken to a scientist to try and figure out what it is, Abe is told that the growth is non-remarkable. But the amount of growth should have occurred over a much longer period than what actually occurred. It is then that he realizes that they had inadvertently created a time machine of some sort.

Abe goes and speaks with Aaron and lets him in on the discovery by taking him out into a field and handing Aaron a pair of binoculars. It is then that Aaron sees another Abe walking into the storage facility due to the fact that Abe has been back in time and this is Abe’s original self heading into the time machine to go back in time.

From here the plot gets significantly more complicated and I will not go into all the details at this time. But basically it is learned that Abe and Aaron begin time traveling fairly regularly in order to game the stock market and make as much money as possible by watching for stocks that make the most significant gains during the day. We also learn that during a party something terrible happens and Abe & Aaron begin manipulating the events of the party by using their new time travel super power to solve the problem of what happened that night. Eventually Granger appears looking disheveled and crazified because he has obviously come from the future. It is then that Abe and Aaron begin wondering of all the infinite permutations of the future caused him to come to the past. And as the movie hurtles towards the ending we start to realize that we may have in fact been played from the very very beginning. What we thought was timeline zero probably was not in fact timeline zero.

Primer Time Travel Primer

I am going to admit to you a failing of mine. Though I just absolutely love thinking through complicated conundrums Primer completely flummoxed me for many YEARS. Literally years. But it was only really because of one item. One simple thing – that just didn’t click for me. Now, obviously, this one item wasn’t a simple thing because it was used over and over again in a multiplicative way… which caused an exponential complication of the film overall. And since I didn’t get past first base I couldn’t even come close to grasping the movie in general, let alone well enough to write about it. But, that all changed when I started crafting my own timeline outline – and I realized what I had been missing. The simple thing I was missing was how Time Travel in Primer Worked. (TTPW – for those of you who love acronyms.)

A Primer Movie Primer - Time Travel - Step 1

So, let me walk you through this really gentle like – because I’m wishing someone would have done this for me a couple years ago. So, forget the movie, and the complexities that will eventually come. Forget the fact that we will eventually have time travel machines being tucked inside of time travel machines. Forget that we will have multiples of individuals running around and all the tom-foolery about to come from all of this. Just concentrate on the fact that YOU OWN a time machine like the one in Primer. Ok? Got that? Good.

In order to utilize your time machine, the first thing you have to do is to turn it on. It won’t work unless it is on. But look at the clock, because the moment you turned it on is critical to what you can do with this time machine sitting here in your garage. Ok? Great. So let’s say you turned on your time machine at 1:oo pm. Great, remember that. Now, here is the key… you stand next to the box – and wait 3 hours, and after those 3 hours you get into said time machine.

So, let’s review. 1:oo pm you turn it on, 4:00 pm you get into it. Simple enough? Good. Now for simplicity sake – let’s call you You-1. Because soon this will become relevant.

A Primer Movie Primer - Time Travel - Step 2

Now, let’s just amp up the complexity just a smidge. Nothing too tricky though. You are now in your time machine, and you wait 3 hours and get out. Here’s the SAT question of the year – WHAT TIME IS IT?! Yes, that is correct, the time is now 1:00 pm – or more specifically 1:05 pm, but let’s not split hairs just yet. And as you step out of the time machine you will encounter you. Actually you will encounter You-1. Actually even more accurately, You-2 will encounter You-1. Right? Because if you look above, I specifically stated, You-1 chooses to stand next to the box and wait 3 hours. So when You-2 gets out, You-1 is standing there waiting for the 3 hours to elapse. So, please say hello to your past self You-2. Past self, don’t be rude, please say hello as well. Thank you.

Right, well here is where I got very very confused. You-1 & You-2 are standing there in your garage being cordial to one another. Now, what happens if You-1 and You-2 chat about that great party you went to last night for 3 hours and then You-1 climbs into the time machine? That’s right… nothing. You-1 is actually, in effect sending themselves into the past and becoming You-2. Right?

But I always assumed that You-1 getting into the box is what made You-2 exist so that was immutable. Completely unchangeable. Well, I was wrong. So, let’s look at this one more time.

Primer Time Travel - Step 3

Now, what happens if while You-1 and You-2 are chatting and waiting for You-1 to get into the box and time travel, You-2 decides to – oh I don’t know – tie You-1 up and lock him in the attic. Just as a random example. What happens? Well, if you look at the diagram above, if you You-1 doesn’t get into the box, he just continues forward in You-2’s timeline concurrently with You-2 forever. Right?

That one bit o’ information is really the key to the entire movie. Beginning to end. But for me, I orginally thought it was impossible for You-1 not to get into the box. That it would basically cause You-2 to evaporate like in a Back to the Future photo. But no. This is not what happens in Primer. Got it? And if you disagree, just trust me on this one. Because you will not progress any further without this one basic bit o’ information.

One other detail that must be understood early on is that you are not able to reuse the same time machine twice. So in our example of You-1 & 2… once You-2 has stepped out of Box1, Box1 is not usable again by You-2 as illustrated in this way:

A Primer Movie Primer - Time Travel - Step 4

So an endless loop backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards is not possible in this way. But, (and this is critical to comprehend fully) it is manageable in this way. You-1 goes into Box1 and goes backwards in time several hours. You step out of the Box1 as You-2. Box1 is now dead to You-2, it is unusable as its been used already. But, what if You-1 brought Box-2 back in time with you in Box-1? Then You-2 could step out of Box-1 and immediately set it up and turn it on as Box-2. Box-2 would then be available to travel back in time almost as far back as Box-1 could allow. This would be illustrated something like this:

A Primer Movie Primer - Time Travel - Step 5

So you can see above that we have started our descent into the rabbit hole. But if you can’t wrap your brain around the above diagram just forget it. Give up now and go back to enjoying Back to the Future. Because this is as simple as I can make it. From here we only get rapidly worse. Multiple boxes within boxes and multiples of multiples of You1,2,3 & Me1,2,3 and some other guy1&2. Seriously. But I’m betting you understand this. Just walk through the diagram slowly and it will make sense. So at the bottom of this diagram above, this green weeble would be You-3 and he would have just exited Box-2. Right? Great. So let’s away now and start to really attack this movie with gusto. This is so exciting!!

A Primer Movie Primer – Key Insights

I know that I did a quick overview of the story above, but I thought it actually would be a good exercise to quickly layout an outline of actually what happened. I’m not going to do a very in depth outline because I’ve got a MASSIVE infographic halfway completed already and I don’t want to steal the thunder there. But I am NEVER going to publish this posting if I don’t cut bait eventually. Its been in my brain and in draft mode for more than a year now. And eventually I just need to figure out how to hit that PUBLISH button over there ——>; that has been haunting me for so long.

So let us away to the outline of Primer. First I would like to say, there are two key things that this movie is actually about. The first one is friendship and trust. And the second one is a specific incident that must be corrected. And the third would be trust in the face of amazing power to correct failings in the past. And the fourth one… oh wait… I only said two. How about if you just remove one of the 3 things I mentioned and we’ll call it good. Great.

The first eye opener (and possibly the most significant) is that the original timeline that we believe to be the original timeline – isn’t. We are actually watching a subverted timeline – a timeline taken hostage by time travel really. Let me put it as plainly as I can. When we see Abe explaining to Aaron about time travel, and when they are outside watching his double go into the box and travel back in time, Abe has already traveled back in time. He not only has already traveled, but he has kidnapped himself, drugged himself, and hid him in the attic. Remember that bit about creatures in the attic? Right. That’s Abe.

Another key insight is that as Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday unfold the same things sort of happen over and over again. Abe and Aaron research stocks, travel back in time, exploit their knowledge. And as this cycle continues (as it already has before we see it begin) it smacks into bumps and anomalies that make this simple cycle deviate from expected routine. The first one is the party. The infamous party that neither Abe or Aaron are in attendance for originally. But something bad happens there that Aaron is not keen about at all. And feeling responsible for it happening he bends time with his new powers and tries desperately (read, over, and over and over again) to get the outcome he wants, which is to get Abe’s girlfriend’s (Rachel) ex-boyfriend sent to prison) out of the situation he believes he caused.

The other massive set of anomalies that the two friends keep running into is the fact that they keep learning more about each other. More importantly they keep learning how little they can trust one another. Abe eventually finds Aaron’s failsafe boxes and replaces the two time machine boxes with his own. He then replaces himself with his wiser self and tries to outpace Aaron in the trickery department. Which is difficult to do because Aaron is no slouch trickster himself seeing as though he was already, from day one, already a future copy of himself already.

The reason Primer is so disconcertingly confusing is fairly simple. The biggest reason is that the movie started after the time travel had already begun and we (and Abe) are actively deceived about this. Then when we start to learn about the finer points of the laws involved with these boxes more complex things are already happening which keeps us slightly off balance from beginning to end. And the final (no not the final thing – just the final thing I can think of at this moment, this movie is to complex to say final anything!) thing making this movie so complex is the fact that it plays out before us without the benefit of all the loops and twists being seen. Everything is basically flattened… Here’s an example of how this plays out.

Let’s use the example of you and your garage. You-1 invents the concept of a time machine right? You-1 activates the box and immediately out steps a copy of himself from the future. Worse yet, a friend of yours walks in and asks what’s going on? “Why are there two of you? Do you have a twin I don’t know anything about?” But fifteen minutes later a second copy of your friend, who is actually friend-1 and the original is actually friend-3, walks in and passes out. And actually, the scenario I just played out for you isn’t nearly disorienting enough because I named the players. Take the names off (you-1, friend-3) and make even just one of them willingly deceive the others and you have yourself a witches brew of chaos and deception.

Because we are a limited observer of a single thread of one time jumping line we are not privy to the entire story, just the effects of the other timelines. So at one point Abe and Aaron encounter what must be a time traveler version of their investor. But they have no idea what might have been so bad in the future to cause Granger to come back, or how he even discovered how is still a mystery. It’s these sorts of out of the blue results of time travel that cause the narrative to be so difficult to follow linearly. There are a number of very good outlines out on the interwebs discussing the flow from beginning to end. And even then you have to hold several realities in your head at once as you read it. Aaron1 time travels, plays the stock market, has a conversation, time travels again, knocks himself out, plays the stock market, repeats that conversation over, time travels, teaches Abe about time travel, Abe and Aaron time travel several times and play the stock market together, until Abe learns of another secret time machine tied further into the past, Abe travels back, replaces himself, begins recording conversations, and swapped out Aaron’s time machine with less of a reach, the days repeat with little change minus the layers of deception…

A Primer Movie Primer – Philosophy

One of the most interesting things about Primer is the fact that it actually isn’t primarily science fiction. It is actually a drama about a friendship tested by unlimited power. Shane was fascinated about probing the depths of friendship in the face of extraordinary circumstances. What would bend that friendship? What would ultimately break it? And break it does… Abe and Aaron spiral downwards until they have to part ways forever… Or at least copies of themselves anyway.

it’s a fascinating question really. What would happen to two best friends confronted with unimaginable power? Couple that with the fact that the power in question is time travel and at the movie’s onset the friendship is already on unsteady ground. Time machines are created and a reserve failsafe is already waiting in the wings to prevent power from slipping away. But when time travel is in play all bets are off… Or more to the point they are on, then off then on again and off again. And as the friends becomes doubles and triples of themselves the question I wonder is whether they are still themselves anymore? The friendship isn’t what it was, that is for sure, but is it because they are not themselves anymore? Is it because we have different duplicates interacting with other duplicates and it mirrors the underlying distrust in their weakening friendship? Was their relationship doomed from the start?

If I walked up to you and your best friend and gave you clues to find a treasure chest, and you intuited several of the answers immediately, would you share them? Or would you quickly solve them all independently in hopes of keeping the box to yourself? And then, would you replace the treasure chest with something good, but less than what was previously, in the hopes of splitting that “treasure” and seeming like the helpful benevolent you are not? And then would you go back and share hints to the answers you’ve already discovered? And then, what if you realized your “best friend” had already done exactly what you were hoping to do… What now? It’s a really fascinating problem and an even more fascinating discussion of trust and friendship in the face of extreme circumstances.

Questions for Shane Carruth

This movie has stayed with me since I first watched years ago. And if given the opportunity I would love to interview Mr. Carruth and ask him a few questions. Surprisingly I probably wouldn’t ask him much about the movie as I’d prefer his work to stand on its own. He has answered many questions in interviews and online already. I would primarily like to understand his view on art and faith. Questions about media and Sundance and how that effects the artist as opposed to the other way around. Questions about his second project and the differences between that and the first. Basically questikns about public expectations and tacit censorship of the artist either through funding restrictions or even just from the the sense of what is popular… And sell-able. If any of that makes sense. So if any of you reading this have an in with the man, there’s a latte in it for you if you connect me with him! Haha.

this review is not completed, though I am publishing it now. I have a massive infographic underway that I am about halfway done with detailing out the flows of the characters as they move forward and backwards. I also have this serious mind job of an excel sheet that I want to apply macros to in order to actively illustrate the timeline as well. So I am not done with this post by any means. You’ll see more here soon, I promise. Just keep bugging me about them! But for now, we are finished here.