Back in 2004, a low-budget science fiction film came out. Why even bring up such a movie? First of all, not many people know about it. Secondly, isn’t it interesting to know how to shoot a worthwhile film for $7000?
“Primer” is not just a movie; it’s a complex puzzle. It’s the picture that makes “Inception” look like a pizza commercial. It takes several viewings to understand every single aspect of it fully. Those who claim to have “understood” the film on the first viewing are probably either lying or just plain stupid. When you finally realize the plot, don’t be surprised to feel joy and triumph, which are not unlike what you think when you can solve a complex puzzle.
In addition, it’s like all the key moments were cut out of the film (on purpose?). It can be compared to a puzzle: when you look at the picture, you understand what is supposed to come out, but when you try to put the scattered pieces together, problems arise. It’s as if the film is saying, “I don’t have time to show for the hundredth time a corny story about time travel to fix (insert whatever you like here). I’ll show you the journey itself, and you figure out a coherent picture and the motivation that drives the characters.”
But was “Primer” deliberately made so crumpled and complicated? Only Shane Carratt, the film’s writer and director, knows the answer, but he probably had no other choice. First, the film was shot on a budget of only $7,000, which limits the liberties that Carratt could have taken, such as visual effects. Second, time travel is intertwined with the film’s plot, and any simplification would have spoiled the pleasure.
The film cannot be called an art house, but at the same time, it is definitely not for everyone. In any case, “Primer” has become a cult in certain circles. Perhaps it is thanks to this highly complex plot, which requires many viewings to comprehend.
Briefly about the plot.
Two friends (seemingly by accident) invent a way to travel through time. Initially, they think of using it only to make money. Still, soon their selfishness and near-sighted causes them to create so many overlapping timelines (at least 9) that they lose control of themselves, their friendship, and the technology. Below comes an in-depth explanation of the movie, which contains many spoilers and an explanation of the ending! For further reading, we recommend watching the movie first.
How does the Time Machine work?
The time machine (or “Box”) has a simple operating method. You turn the device on and leave it on until you go back the amount of time you want. For example, if you turn it on at noon today and leave it on until 6 pm, and then enter the box at 6 pm and, after being in it for 6 hours, you will leave the machine at noon that same day, effectively going back 6 hours. The diagram below clearly explains the concept of time travel in the movie. The same diagram in a larger resolution.
What do you need to remember when watching or reviewing the film?
- The first 10 minutes are devoted to getting to know the two main characters, Abe and Aron. Nothing much happens in the first few minutes except introducing the guys trying to sell patents.
- Between 10-20 minutes, a real time machine is invented, although it doesn’t happen consciously. Again, the science behind the device is not crucial to the plot.
- Around minute 20, the scene in which you see Abe looking up from the roof is the first time the characters have begun time travel or, instead, have already traveled through time.
- Notice Aron is wearing an earpiece as Abe approaches him. Why is he wearing the earpiece, and what is he listening to? This is revealed later.
- There are two important turning points in the film. First, when Aron expresses his desire to punch his boss. Second, when Aron gets a call from his wife at the hotel, the same call again outside the restaurant. The second incident proves to both of them that history can be changed by time travel- both of them didn’t know it before. Once it is known that history can be altered, it is tempting to go back in time and modify events.
- Reference is made to the “failsafe” contingency machine that duplicates the current ones.
- Thomas Granger, father of Rachel (Abe’s girlfriend). It is his presence (the person who slipped away from the future) that makes things go wrong.
- Timeline. Essentially, the main plot of the film unfolds over the course of 6 days, from Sunday to Friday. Of course, there are certain events that take place more than once.
- The time machines (i.e., boxes) are foldable and, therefore, can be taken inside another box.
The “spare” machine.
The “spare” time machine was an extra one that Abe built in case something went wrong in the future; he could go back to the point where he started time travel. He turned it on Sunday at 9 a.m. (he starts time travel on Monday at 9 a.m.). But Abe didn’t know that Aron had figured out the fail-safe machine and had used it to travel back in time before he did.
Who is the narrator (voice-over)?
Aron leaves a message for Aron. Difficult to understand? Once the time travel sequence begins, there are actually three Arons and two Abes at the same time. The voice-over you hear in the movie is, in fact, Aron 2 leaving a message for Aaron 1.
A full explanation of the movie “Primer”
Now that you know the basic details and what to look for in the film, it remains to put all the pieces of the puzzle together. A complete diagram with a description of the events is at the link.
– A fundamental timeline divergence occurs when Aron finds out about Abe’s “spare” machine and uses it to create a timeline where he becomes Aron 2 and records everything that happens to them these days.
– Aron 2 puts Aron 1 to sleep by hiding him in the attic.
– The moment Thomas Granger’s twin (Rachel’s father) shows up, Abe realizes that things haven’t gone according to plan and is going to use his “spare” machine. Aron 2, realizing this, uses his “spare” device and gets out a half hour earlier than Abe. In doing so, he takes the tape recorder on which he has recorded all his actions these days.
– Aron 3 meets Aron 2 at the house and convinces him to act on his plan. Aron 2 leaves town, leaving Aron 3 behind.
– Abe 2 makes Abe 1 sleep and hides him. After that, he meets up with Aron 3, who offers to act on the previously recorded scenario. This is aided by their communication through headphones, which is why we saw Aron with them earlier.
– Aron 3 and Abe 2 alter their future by preventing Rachel’s ex-boyfriend from showing up at the party with a shotgun. Next, their plans for the time machine diverge, so Aron 3 leaves, and Abe 2 stays behind to make sure that Aron 1 and Abe 1 can’t invent the time machine.
– The highlight of the film is that Aron 2, who is shown at the end, remains behind the scenes. He creates a vast construct, most likely a time machine. He leaves a message on his phone, which is addressed to Aron 1 or Abe 1.
Pictures like “Primer” are not shot every day. Some may say, “why even make a movie that isn’t easy to understand?” The answer is, “not every movie has to be for the masses.” If you don’t have the patience and desire to immerse yourself in the plot and if you want dynamic action and an exciting picture, like in “Interstellar,” this movie is not for you.
The main idea of the film, hidden behind the professional dialogues and confusing plot the director himself explains quite simply: Primer is, among other things, a film about ethical questions that “ignoramuses” refuse to ask, behaving “like prep school kids” and yearning to “feel that you are ahead of everyone, that you are in charge.
This analogy, incidentally, is indicated by the title itself: “primer” can be translated both as “guide,” “manual,” and as “superior” – the characters thus develop a “manual on how to be superior” among hundreds of their own doubles, which, ironically, they themselves are, without even thinking to discuss “the ethical problem of changing one’s identity in the past.