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Film: Primer
What if it actually works?

"Look, everything we're putting into that box becomes ungrounded, and I don't mean grounded like to the earth, I mean, not tethered. I mean, we're blocking whatever keeps it moving forward, and so they flip-flop."
Abe

Primer is a 2004 independent film, written and directed by Shane Carruth. It was made on a minuscule budget: $7,000, most of which went towards buying film stock. The film is a character-driven drama about two engineers who unexpectedly create a Time Machine, and an examination of how Time Travel (and the power it confers) affects them and their friendship.

Quite possibly the single geekiest film ever made, and one that brings technical jargon to a new art form, it is also one of the most believable via its starkly straightforward presentation.

The film opens with two engineers and entrepreneurs, Abe and Aaron, building electronics in Aaron's garage. After achieving some success with their latest project — a room temperature superconductor — they discover it has an unexpected side-effect: creating time loops. Everything they place inside the Box runs back and forth through time for roughly 1300 iterations.

By scaling up the Box, they're able to use it as a means to travel into the past. The device has its limitations:
  • As it does not laterally bypass temporal mechanics, but rather inverts its progression, they have to take The Slow Path: to go back in time two hours, one has to remain in the box for the same duration.
  • As it alters time only within its own dimensions and during operation, and offers only one 'exit node' back into standard temporal progression, they can only travel back to the time that it was turned on, not before or after.

Even with the limitations, however, they figure out how to use time travel to make a nice profit, through effectively living through the same period a second time with foreknowledge of the stock market.

Then something goes wrong. And that's when things get really confusing. The plot itself is non-linear. Most of the plot — including several crucial events — is neither shown nor described, just implied. And on top of that, the characters communicate almost exclusively in dense Techno Babble.

Some helpful, spoilerific, graphs:

Yes, this is a movie that requires graphs to get a handle on.


This film provides examples of:

  • Anachronic Order: Maybe! It's difficult to tell when a linear plot would be going back and forth in time as well.
  • Cast the Expert: Keith the clean room guy at University of Texas at Dallas is played by... Keith Bradshaw, the clean room guy at UTD.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Aaron's headphones.; Rats in the attic.
  • Clock Discrepancy: Abe suspects that the Box is a time machine, and he confirms this by placing a digital watch inside it for a minute. Upon removing the watch, it's about 21 hours fast.
  • Clone Degeneration: Word of God for states that doubles created via Time Travel are imperfect copies. This is the reason for Aaron and Abe's earbleeds and the degradation of their handwriting when they begin altering their past.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Platz is hinted to be one. At first, it seems like he's just your typical Bad Boss but a bit of dialog earlier in the movie refers to an event that happened "last year" and one of the characters saying he knew someone with a legal background that knew about "cases like ours." Suggesting Platz took an intellectual property invented by the company (probably claiming that it was developed on company time with company resources, which is often covered in employment contracts.)
  • Deadly Nosebleed: A symptom of improperly performed time travel. He leaped out of the box late (early from his perspective.)
  • Gambit Roulette: When you've already seen events play out, you can make plans work that involve things that would normally be completely unpredictable, but sometimes even having seen it happen once doesn't mean it will happen the same way again.
  • Gambit Pileup: Two Chessmasters, a Time Machine, and no need to worry about causing a Temporal Paradox. Things get complicated.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Abe and Aaron.
  • Homemade Inventions: The time machine.
  • Hourglass Plot: Aaron starts off as a family man and rather risk-averse (note the scenes where he worries about needing eye protection and warns his wife against using the first batch of ice from the new fridge). Abe starts off unmarried and rather more devil-may-care. Over the course of the film, access to a Time Travel-powered Reset Button makes Aaron become more aggressive and willing to take risks, and he eventually leaves his family. Abe, on the other hand, becomes increasingly worried about the side-effects of time travel and oddly protective of Aaron's family.
  • Incestuous Casting: As per the commentary, Aaron (Shane Carruth)'s wife is played by Shane Carruth's sister.
  • Ironic Echo: They/he took from his/their surroundings what was needed, and made of it something more. Overlaps with Meaningful Echo.
  • Limited Wardrobe: Abe and Aaron's work clothes might as well be uniforms. At one point, Abe is shown sleeping in them.
  • Meaningful Echo: They/he took from his/their surroundings what was needed, and made of it something more. Overlaps with Ironic Echo.
  • Misapplied Phlebotinum: Abe and Aaron could have made money in a number of ways more efficiently than playing the stock market, though the movie shows that they go about it this way because they're trying to be as careful as possible about the impact they have on causality, as they don't know which rules apply to their type of time travel, and they're trying to hide their invention's existence until they fully understand it.
  • Mistaken for Gay: The pair speculates that this is bound to happen, what with the extended time they spend by themselves in a hotel room waiting to come out.
  • Narrator All Along: Hooded Aaron's phone message.
  • No Ending: We don't know whether Abe's plan succeeds, what Hooded Aaron is doing, or what Aaron Three is doing.
  • Prelap: An ice machine is triggered on a refrigerator, but the sound is a piece of construction equipment from the next shot.
  • Reed Richards Is Useless: They invent a workable TIME MACHINE and the best use they can think of is to make money in the stock market?
  • Reset Button: Various characters have back-up boxes going from the beginning of the story in case something goes wrong. Then they start folding up more boxes and bringing them back in the fail-safe one.
  • Sdrawkcab Name: Abe Terger comes to regret his work at Emiba which leads to a mise en abyme.
  • Second-Hand Storytelling: Half the reason the film is so mind screwy is because several key events are described rather than shown — and the characters doing the describing would rather be laconic than descriptive.
  • Set Right What Once Went Wrong: The plot involves Aaron going back in time twice to save Abe's girlfriend, Rachel, from her psychotic ex-boyfriend. Thomas Granger, Rachel's father, is believed to have come back for similar reasons, but we never find out exactly what his motives were.
  • Shown Their Work:
    • They researched what would happen if you had two copies of the same cellphone. Turns out, some networks just look for the first one, and others ring both.
    • Research into the physics of time has suggested that if a time machine was built, it would have at least one similar restriction as in the movie: it would only allow you to travel back to the point at which it was turned on.
  • Spanner in the Works: Granger's surprise time trip (given the place and time he shows up, he's probably there to prevent a disaster resulting from the punch-Platts experiment). Abe tries to fix the Granger problem two different ways, once with one of the Thursday 5:00pm boxes (we see him running to get into place behind the house before the other Abe leaves the car), and then with his fail-safe box. The former trip left him with a quantum entanglement with Granger, since he had a 50/50 chance of using the same box Granger did — thus Granger lost consciousness whenever he got too close to Abe).
  • The Slow Path: In both directions. To go back two hours, you have to sit in the box for two hours.
  • Techno Babble: In the absence of any solid Real Life physics supporting time travel, their hypothesizing about the technicalities can't be anything else. However, the language of mathematics and engineering has been leveraged to maximize plausibility. Within the framework of the film a lot of work has been done to keep things consistent.
  • Time Is Dangerous: Excessive time travel causes strange physical problems in the protagonists: mysterious bleeding from their ears and deterioration of their handwriting. Word of God is that this is also a case of Clone Degeneration.
  • Time Machine: Closest it comes is to a Terminator-type, but it's really in a category all its own.
  • Time Travel: The central premise.
  • Time Travel for Fun and Profit: Abe and Aaron never got around to publicizing their time machine, because they were too busy using hourly time travel to make money day-trading stocks.
  • Time Travel Tense Trouble: "Man, are you hungry? I haven't eaten since later this afternoon."
  • The Ending Changes Everything: The second act of the film involves the use of very limited Time Travel. However, in the third act Abe learns that his friend Aaron has already used the time machine to change the past. So during the entire aforementioned second act, Aaron had actually been Aaron-from-a-week-in-the-future, manipulating current events for his own ends.
  • Viewers Are Geniuses: The film leaves the viewer to figure a lot of the very complex plot out on their own.
  • Wham Line: "I hope you're not implying that any day is unimportant at Cortex Semi." A Wham Line not for the words itself, but for the fact that Aaron says it even though Abe had failed to remember the line that prompted it, revealing that he was reciting the conversation from memory, too.. The lines before that also count, such as the fact that Abe has a secret backup time machine which has been running for most of the movie.
  • Wrong Genre Savvy: Abe comes up with a very thorough plan to avoid causing Temporal Paradoxes, which turns out to be completely unnecessary (or not, depending on your interpretation of Granger's fate; the idea that he is suffering from temporal paradox — that the consequence of paradox is that the universe destroys you, rather than vice versa — was put forth by Carruth himself, whatever his opinion's worth). Still, points for trying.


The TempestOancitizen ListKen Park
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alternative title(s): Primer
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