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Film / Primer

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"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."

Primer is a 2004 independent science fiction drama film famous for a number of things:

  1. Its production being mostly handled (writing, directing, producing, editing, cinematography, music, and a co-starring role) by one man — Shane Carruth.
  2. Its shoestring budget of $7,000, most of which went towards buying film stock.
  3. Its deep, philosophical deconstruction of Time Travel in a realistic scenario.
  4. Its jargon-laden dialogue and experimental structure making for some of the nerdiest, hardest, and most incomprehensible science fiction of recent memory.

The film opens with two engineers and entrepreneurs, Abe (David Sullivan) and Aaron (Carruth), building tech projects 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 exhibits temporal anomalies, proceeding normally then go backwards for a continuously repeating sequence, so that whatever is inside the Box can leave in the present, or at any point in the past.

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, and most of it — including several crucial events — is neither shown nor described, just implied.

Some helpful, spoilerific, graphs:

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

Shane Carruth later went on to direct (and write, produce, star in, etc.) Upstream Color. He also starred in and was one of the producers for The Dead Center.

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.
  • Checkpoint: Non-video game example; the Box's limit that you can only travel back to the point where it was turned on is similar to the function of a checkpoint.
  • 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. It may also account for their personality swaps.
  • 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 characters (probably claiming that it was developed on company time with company resources, which is often covered in employment contracts) and kept the profits for himself while cutting out the people who developed it.
  • Deadly Nosebleed: A symptom of improperly performed time travel. Granger leaped out of the box late (early from his perspective) because he didn't understand the precise mechanism.
  • 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.
  • 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, but the events of the plot seem to push them apart.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Mamet Speak: Abe and Aaron speak in high-level technical jargon while frequently interrupting each other and making no attempt to dumb down what they're saying for the audience.
  • Meaningful Echo: They/he took from his/their surroundings what was needed, and made of it something more. Overlaps with Ironic Echo.
  • Mind Screw: Between the multiple time-travels, the non-linear plot and the sea of Techno Babble that the main characters spout at each other constantly is no wonder that most viewers can't keep things straight. It got to the point where the film actually needed graphs in order to explain what was happening.
  • 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.
  • Noodle Incident: Whatever drove Mr. Granger to use the machine.
  • Orbital Shot: Seen when Aaron realizes Abe wants to make a bigger box.
  • Personality Swap: Aaron and Abe seem to begin to take on elements of each other's personalities the more they time travel; Aaron becomes more of a devil-may-care loner unconcerned with his family, while Abe becomes more cautious and curiously protective towards Aaron's family.
  • 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: Justified; despite inventing a workable time machine, the best use the protagonists put it towards is some fairly low-level gaming of the stock market. However, they're intentionally trying to keep as low a profile as possible (and avoid any possible paradoxes or issues with causality) with their time travel exploits until they fully understand what they're dealing with, and are also trying to raise funds for further experimentation. Furthermore, it's also downplayed as using a time machine for profit is hardly impractical or useless.
  • 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.
  • Small Role, Big Impact: Platt and Rachel's psycho ex-boyfriend. Platt's role is so small that he never actually appears onscreen, and it's only stated that he stole one of Abe and Aaron's inventions in the past. Their wish to punch Platt in the face then go back in time and stop themselves results in them noticing the future Granger and becoming scared that something horrible must have happened in the future that resulted in him finding out about the box. Rachel's ex, meanwhile, only ever appears twice, but he is apparently so insane that he brings a loaded gun to a party full of people and Aaron and Abe spend multiple time-jumps ensuring that he's not just scared off but properly arrested without possibility of coming back.
  • Shown Their Work: And once you've seen the movie, you'll be asking for their cheat sheet just so you can understand it.
    • 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.
  • The Slow Path: In both directions. To go back two hours, you have to sit in the box for two hours. This causes enormous problems when Abe and Aaron use the failsafe boxes. They travel backwards for days.
  • 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 Story That Never Was: When the power of Time Travel proves too dangerous and too confusing for anyone to use, Abe Terger travels back as far as he can and interferes with his past self's experiments, hoping to stop the past versions of himself and Aaron from pursuing time travel any further. The future versions of Abe and Aaron, who went through all that character development, continue existing—since time travel in Primer results in the travellers cloning themselves unless they're careful to maintain a Stable Time Loop.
  • 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. In a more subtle example, repeated time travel also seems to cause Aaron and Abe to take on elements of each other's personalities.
  • 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".
  • Vanity Project: Shane Carruth (who plays one of the lead characters named Aaron) wrote, directed, produced, edited and composed the music for this film. However unlike most Vanity Projects, it has managed to earn good reviews and win two awards. (And he only acted in the movie after being unable to find anyone who could "break... the habit of filling each line with so much drama".)
  • 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.
  • Wham Shot: The final shot of the film shows that one of the Aarons has begun construction on a Box the size of a warehouse.
  • White Male Lead: Abe and Aaron. Phillip, the one major character of color, is quickly sidelined out of the action, and the female characters never emerge from the background.
  • 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.