Review: Primer - the plot and paradoxes

04 March 2023

Primer is a 2004 independent science-fiction film written, directed, produced, and edited by Shane Carruth (Upstream Colour). The film was made on a low budget and gained a cult following for its experimental plot structure, philosophical implications, and complex technical dialogue.

It has a weird Donnie Darko vibe, yet is completely different.

The plot of Primer revolves around two engineers, Aaron and Abe, who accidentally discover a way to build a time machine. They start using the device to make small changes to their past, but as they continue tomanipulate time, their actions become increasingly complicated and dangerous

The film is known for its complex narrative structure, which uses multiple timelines and overlapping scenes to create a sense of confusion and disorientation for the viewer.

Basically, it is as complicated as rocket science...


The philosophical implications of the film are significant, as the characters grapple with the consequences of their actions and the ethical dilemmas that arise from their use of time travel. The film raises questions about the nature of free will, the consequences of playing with time, and the limitations of human knowledge and understanding.

Primer is a thought-provoking and unique film that pushes the boundaries of traditional storytelling. Its experimental narrative structure, philosophical implications, and complex technical dialogue make it a fascinating exploration of the human experience and the nature of time itself.

Primer's time travel aspects are both fascinating and complex. The film's characters discover a way to build a time machine that allows them to travel back in time by several hours. They use this technology to make small changes to their past, but soon their actions become more complicated and dangerous, creating paradoxes and unintended consequences.

One of the most significant paradoxes in the film is the bootstrap paradox. 

In the film, Aaron and Abe discover a box with a time machine inside, which they then use to go back in time to build the box. This creates a paradox where the box has no origin because it was never created by anyone, but instead, it exists in a loop where its creation is continually repeated.

Another paradox in the film is the grandfather paradox. This paradox occurs when a person travels back in time and accidentally kills their grandfather before their parent is born, which would result in the time traveler never being born. In the film, one of the characters goes back in time to prevent another character from using the time machine, which creates a paradox where the character never went back in time in the first place.

The time travel aspects of Primer are intentionally confusing and complex, and Shane Carruth does not provide easy answers or solutions to the paradoxes he creates. Instead, he challenges the viewer to think deeply about the nature of time and the implications of time travel. 

Here's a guide for viewers of Primer to follow the plot points:

  1. The film follows two engineers, Aaron and Abe, who are working on a project in a garage in their spare time.
  2. They discover that their project has created a small amount of anti-gravity, which they believe can be used to create a time machine.
  3. They build a time machine in secret, which allows them to travel back in time by several hours.
  4. They start to use the time machine to make small changes to their past, such as winning the lottery or placing bets on the stock market.
  5. As they continue to use the time machine, they begin to make larger changes, including trying to prevent accidents or save lives.
  6. They eventually create multiple versions of themselves by traveling back in time and interacting with their past selves.
  7. They start to have disagreements and conflicts about how to use the time machine and how to handle the consequences of their actions.
  8. The film becomes increasingly complex as it introduces multiple timelines and overlapping scenes, making it difficult for the viewer to keep track of the story.
  9. The characters become increasingly paranoid and confused, and their actions create unintended consequences, leading to a tragic ending.
  10. The film ends with a sense of ambiguity, leaving the viewer to interpret the events of the story and the implications of the characters' actions.

How many Abe and Aaron versions are there in Primer?

There are actually four versions of Aaron and Abe featured in the film Primer. 

The first version of Aaron and Abe is the one we see at the beginning of the film who are working on their project in the garage. 

The second version of Aaron and Abe is the one who goes back in time to prevent the other from using the time machine, creating a new timeline. 

The third version of Aaron and Abe is the one who is accidentally locked in the storage unit and discovers that Aaron's other version has been using the time machine to manipulate events. The fourth and final version of Aaron and Abe is the one that travels back to the very beginning of the film, setting the events of the story in motion and creating a time loop. 

It's worth noting that the different versions of Aaron and Abe become increasingly difficult to distinguish from each other as the film progresses, adding to the confusion and complexity of the plot.

How many timelines are in play in Primer?

The exact number of timelines in Primer is a bit ambiguous and open to interpretation, but it's generally agreed that there are at least two timelines that are featured prominently in the film. 

The first timeline is the "original" timeline, which is the one we see at the beginning of the film before any time travel occurs. In this timeline, Aaron and Abe are working on their project and discovering the properties of the time machine for the first time.

The second timeline is created when one version of Aaron goes back in time to prevent the other from using the time machine, which leads to a new timeline where events unfold differently. This creates a new version of Aaron and Abe who are working with knowledge and experiences from the previous timeline, leading to new consequences and complications.

Some viewers have suggested that there may be additional timelines or alternate versions of events that are hinted at or implied in the film, but these are not explicitly shown or explained. 

How is the failsafe used in Primer?

In Primer, the "failsafe" is a mechanism built into the time machine to ensure that the characters can only travel back in time for a limited period of six hours. This is to prevent them from traveling back too far and potentially causing irreparable damage to the timeline.

The failsafe works by automatically returning the time traveler to the present time six hours after they enter the time machine. This means that they can only travel back in time for a maximum of six hours, and they must return to the present before they can use the time machine again.

This is where the plot of the film really starts to come into its own.

In the film, the failsafe is used as a way to limit the characters' ability to change the past and to emphasize the importance of their actions in the present. 

Abe built the “failsafe” to allow him to travel back to a time before he discussed the subject of time travel with Aaron. Abe would then be able to sabotage the machine as many times as necessary to stop the two men's time-traveling adventures. The twist however, is that Aaron figure out the existence of the failsafe (and well before the film viewers did) and he used it to create a new machine and a different failsafe point so he could actually reset any actions Abe took.

However, the failsafe also creates its own set of limitations and complications, such as the need to constantly monitor the time machine and the potential for unexpected consequences when the time traveler returns to the present.

Please explain the ending of Primer, what the heck did I just watch?

The ending of Primer is intentionally ambiguous and open to interpretation, leaving the viewer to draw their own conclusions about what happens to the characters and the implications of their actions.

In the final scenes of the film, we see Aaron and Abe arguing in a hotel room about the consequences of their time travel and the choices they have made. We see Abe take a phone call and hear him say, "No, he's not here," implying that another version of Aaron may be present somewhere else.

The film ends with a shot of Aaron sitting alone in a park, looking up at the sky. We hear a faint sound of what may be an airplane, and the film cuts to black.

The ambiguity of the ending leaves several questions unanswered... 

Is the Aaron we see in the park the same version of Aaron we've been following throughout the film, or is he a different version from another timeline? What happened to the other versions of Aaron and Abe, and what are the consequences of their time travel?

Some viewers have interpreted the ending as suggesting that the characters have become trapped in a never-ending cycle of time travel and manipulation, with no way to escape the consequences of their actions. Others have suggested that the final shot of Aaron looking up at the sky represents a moment of reflection or regret, as he contemplates the consequences of his choices.

Whatever this third version of Abe is thinking, it appears that he may be building an even bigger time machine in the airport hanger.

Ultimately, the ending of Primer is left open to interpretation, inviting the viewer to engage with the film's complex themes and ideas and draw their own conclusions about what happened, or what may be about to happen. 

What does the title of Primer mean?

One possible interpretation of the title is that it refers to a type of paint or coating that is applied to a surface before painting, in order to improve adhesion and durability. This metaphor could be applied to the film's characters, who are "laying the groundwork" for their time-travel experiments and attempting to create a durable and stable method of time travel.

Another possible interpretation of the title is that it refers to a basic, introductory text or manual, often used to teach a subject or provide an overview of a complex topic. In this context, the title could be seen as a reference to the film's complex plot and technical dialogue, which require careful attention and study to fully understand.

Overall, the title "Primer" suggests a sense of foundational knowledge or preparation, which is fitting given the film's focus on the characters' attempts to create and control time travel.

Trivia about Primer

  1. The film was made on a very low budget, with most of the production taking place in the director's garage and using his own personal belongings as props and set pieces.
  2. The script for Primer was only 80 pages long, but the film's complex plot required multiple rewrites and revisions to get the details and logic of the time travel right.
  3. The film's director, Shane Carruth, also wrote the score for the film, which features a mix of electronic and acoustic instruments.
  4. Carruth himself stars in the film as one of the main characters, Aaron, and also served as the film's producer, cinematographer, and editor.
  5. The film's technical dialogue is intentionally complex and difficult to follow, with the actors often speaking in hushed tones and using technical jargon that can be hard to understand. This was done to create a sense of realism and authenticity, as the characters are supposed to be highly intelligent and knowledgeable about their work.
  6. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004, beating out several high-profile films with much larger budgets.


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About the author Jimmy Jangles

My name is Jimmy Jangles, the founder of The Astromech. I have always been fascinated by the world of science fiction, especially the Star Wars universe, and I created this website to share my love for it with fellow fans.

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