Movies analysed

Primer (2004) movie explained

This is my second movie analyzed – Primer! It’s a low-budget sci-fi thriller centers on a pair of engineers who accidentally create a time machine.

One of the best Sci-Fi movies ever. You’re ready for this?


This may be one of the most confusing films I’ve ever watched. That’s partly what makes it great, but it also is an excellent portrayal of the engineering process (even if time travel is fantastical). The reason why I think it tends to be confusing is one of my favorite parts of the movie. Movies generally set up the rules of the movies universe and keep them mostly consistent. But in Primer, these two guys accidentally discover time travel and set up the rules for it. The rest of the movie is essentially them realizing the rules they put forth are wrong and the repercussions of that. This is confusing because if you don’t realize that’s what is happening then you spend the whole movie unable to figure out why nothing is happening like they say it is. Which, to me, is brilliant. What are the odds that people accidentally discovering time travel also accidentally discovering how it works before they do it?

The timelines

Complex isn’t it? Picture:

So all information aka timelines are posted in one picture – let’s close it! No! No! I’m joking, this is so complex that it deserves some more explanation.

The story in short

Two guys Abe and Aaron build a machine that does some weird science stuff. Abe is able to deduce they’ve built a time travel box. He builds a larger scale box that can fit people and tests this theory over a couple of days. He then shows it Aaron (who agrees time travel exists). They decide to keep it secret between themselves. In their version of time travel, they can only go back as far as when the time travel machine was turned on (this is a huge point). If they turn it on at 10am on 1-1-2013…they can only travel back that far. AND they have to wait however long the machine was running. Thus, if they turn the machine on at 8am, and climb into the box at 8pm (to start their journey back)…they have to wait 12 hours inside the box to travel back to 8am. The time travel portion of movie takes place over a couple of days. In those days, we see the guys doing their routine: Start machine, go to hotel, look up stocks, turn off machine, travel back in time, make money in stocks……repeat. Then things go bad. The party incident (we’re not told exactly what happened, but someone ends up in jail or something because of a shooting) and Granger (an investor) finds the box, uses it, gets out to early, and becomes sick (ends up in coma, possibly permanently). Things in general are not going well. Abe, decides to end this. We learn that Abe created a “fail-safe” time machine box before telling Aaron about the time machine. This would allow him to travel back before everything (we saw in the movie) and prevent all the bad things from happening. Sort of like a save point in a video game before you go on a murderous rampage, which enables Abe to reset the timeline. THEN we learn that Aaron knew about Abe’s fail-safe box, used it to bring back his own machine to create a “master fail-safe”, and created a false fail-safe point for Abe’s box. Thus, Aaron’s “save point” is farther back than Abe’s. So while Abe thinks he’s resetting everything, Aaron is able to prevent that reset. Presumably to keep using the time travel box. We also learn that the Aaron we’ve been watching (with the earpiece in) is actually the Arron from the future, and he’s using his iPod (and recorded conversations) to know exactly what everyone is going to do. This allows him to steer/control the actions of other people. The movie ends with Aaron building a huge, room-sized box, presumably to be able to time travel for weeks or months at a time.

What does the title of the movie ‘Primer’ mean?

iW: Where did the title come from?

Carruth: First thing, I saw these guys as scientifically accomplished but ethically, morons. They never had any reasons before to have ethical questions. So when they’re hit with this device they’re blindsided by it. The first thing they do is make money with it. They’re not talking about the ethics of altering your former self. So to me, they’re kids, they’re like prep school kids basically. To call it a primer or a lesson was the easy way to go. And then there’s also this power they have in using the device is something almost worse then death. To put someone else in the position where they’re not sure they’re in control of anything. They’re not in the front of the line anymore and they’re living in someone’s past, to be secondary in that world. The thing that is most important is to feel like you’re at the front of the line, to be prime or primer. I definitely never wanted to say that in the film, but that’s where it comes from.

In short: A primer doesn’t make you an expert, it just makes you feel like an expert. Which is where Aaron and Abe are at. They discover a new phenomenon, but don’t realize how little they actually understand the consequences of it. They have just enough knowledge to be dangerous.

How does the time travel work?


The boxes let objects travel through a time loop, from point A, when the box is turned on, to point B when the box is turned off. Objects in the box will continually loop from point A to point B until they exit the box. With each loop the object will experience the amount of time the box had been on. If a person wants to go back in time, he has to decide at point A to turn the box on. He can now travel back to point A at some point in the future. After a few hours (or days), the person will turn off the box; this will be point B. He then climbs inside and waits the same length of time as has passed from point A to B. He then emerges from the box at point A. For example, to travel from 3pm back to 9am, the person will have to stay in the box for 6 hours.

What is a failsafe?

When Abe time travels for the first time, he fears that things might go out of control because they are dealing with a thing unknown to even them. So in order to get things right in case something goes wrong, Abe develops a second time machine and starts it before he time travels. So that if situation demands he could get in this failsafe and travel back in time when he had not time travelled in the first place and stop him from doing so. In which case the time travel would never have taken place to begin with. So basically the failsafe is a reset button.


This film imagines its viewers to be smart, possessed of a decent attention span and game for a challenge. It doesn’t happen all that often. It’s by far the most time travel movie. The permutations are mind-boggling!

This is one of those thinking movies. Think Inception, but with a more complicated plot-line. I’ve seen it ~5 times and I kind-of know what happened. It was made really cheaply, like a few thousand dollars or something equally ridiculously low. If you’re looking for fancy Hollywood stuff, look somewhere else. The beginning is kind of slow, but if you have faith and keep watching, you’ll be rewarded.


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