At Last, A Definitive Timeline for Primer

There’s a reason I’m posting this as the last official article of the week, because it’s probably going to take you all weekend (and then some) to figure it out.

Primer is a great sci-fi film, but one of the most confusing movies ever made. It takes the subject of time travel, and all the implications that follow, and lays them out in the most complicated, but accurate fashion possible. It takes a LOT of analysis to fully understand the film, and even though I thought I did, this chart proves me wrong.

Anything in this you’d care to dispute? I can imagine coming back to this post on Monday and seeing a million responses with different interpretations.

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  1. After a cursory inspection, this diagram for what happens in Primer seems plausible to me. I wish it had been worded more carefully, though–I kept stumbling over awkward expressions. But I thank you for the work.

    My main reaction to the movie is like what I felt about Inception, although for a different reason. In Inception, Christopher Nolan wasn’t content to use his modestly clever idea once; he just had to do it four times. Yet he explained everything at every step of the way, so his dream-within-a-dream recursion became surprisingly boring. Shane Carruth similarly felt he had to complicate his story, but, taking the opposite tack from what Nolan later did, Carruth omitted things, under-explained what was happening. His film became annoyingly inscrutable. In both cases, my basic reaction was “Why?”

    Inception seemed to me mostly pointless, but I’ll leave that alone as it’s not the subject at hand here. If Primer has some value other than the puzzle it presents, then the complexity of what Carruth presents is actually a detriment. I think there is some value to his tale (beyond the puzzle, that is); it’s the value of seeing the human consequences of a new scientific power. But I wish he hadn’t fragmented and obscured it so much.

    1. I don’t agree. I think the complexity of the film makes discerning the ‘value’ all that much more rewarding. If you pay close attention to what happens throughout, you can see the evolution of the character of Aaron (and to a lesser extent Abe) and how the ability to be prescient has adversely affected his ethics and morality. Even when presented with a situation in which his actions, intended to be positive, had an adverse outcome, he still soldiered on as if he could continue to manipulate events to his advantage and desired outcome. Only… it isn’t actually possible. That is what is too complex: trying to contain and control that many variables.

      So while I can understand why people think it may be too complex, I think it only becomes more satisfying with repeat viewings.

  2. This chart is amazing but I found at least one problem. The chart indicates the party takes place on Tuesday the 23rd, but in the movie Aaron clearly says the party was the night that Abe told him about how the machine works, which would mean it happens Monday the 22nd.

  3. Does your diagram confirm / agree with the inconsistencies with Aaron’s refrigerator? During the first (!) revision in Aaron’s Kitchen we see a new refrigerator with a bow on it (presumably a present). Later (!!) we see that Aaron’s refrigerator is now a white one that Abe is salvaging copper tubing from. Clearly this is meant to be in different timelines. I’ve gotta study this diagram for a while now.

    1. The White one is the one in Abe’s place. You can see the guy he talks to when he wakes up to meet Aaron at the door later sitting on the couch while Aaron’s preparing to take the fridge apart. I think his name was Brad.

  4. no, no the white fridge was their old fridge. The black was a new christmas gift. They were getting materials out of the old one.This has nothing to to with time travel.

  5. Paul, did you author this chart? I ask, because there’s so much not appearing in the yellow boxes, it seems like something the scriptwriter might’ve cooked up to help with getting the script correct!

    Either way, fascinating info. Let us know!


    I read over this and question some of it. For instance, the part about the phone call to Aaron. It lists that the Aaron at the hotel didn’t receive the call. It would make more sense that both received the call, cause Aaron (4) answered the call, but Aaron (5) simply lets it ring and doesn’t answer the call, allowing Aaron (4) to answer it instead. This seems confusing to many cause they want so desperately to think they broke symmetry, then in actuality they both got the call and nothing truly changes from the world’s point of view. If Aaron (5) would have answered the call, then, that would have been a different story.
    The second part that confuses is the part about Abe (3) starting the machines and then leaving. It says he starts them to do an experiment with paradoxes. After Abe (3) and Aaron (4) enter the boxes and time travel at 15:00, it says Abe (3) then starts the machines at 16:45, and they warm up at 17:00. How could he start the boxes if he already time traveled? I understand he was experimenting with paradoxes, but his still being there is odd since he can’t physically split in two. The paradox would have to be something with his actions of the day, not something that happened unhappening. That’s just silly thinking in the reality of it all. A mistype perhaps? 3 Meant 4, 4 meant 5, 5 meant 6, etc?
    The third part is when Thomas Granger (1) exits the machines too early and thus suffers from a coma later. To me, this all sounds too vague and makes little sense. Everyone overlooks the fact that Aaron says about the shooter firing at the party “He didn’t the time I wasn’t there, and the only time he does is when I rushed him…”. This leads me to believe that he did fire his weapon during at least one of the revisions. Remember when Abe and Aaron are discussing the Granger appearance in the storage locker? Abe asks “What if there’s an emergency?” Aaron states “I don’t know, what kind of emergency?” This points to something unseen and unknowable. Since Granger’s appearance, Abe and Aaron are aware that their frequent travel through time has caused too many instances of themselves, and despite their meticulous care in avoiding their immediate past doubles, too much changes and they’re unsure what their previous selves are doing. Rachel could have been shot, Causing Aaron to travel back to record the conversations and script his next attempt to disarm and jail the shooter. Abe most definitely felt the need to tell Granger as his daughter was harmed or killed, and that’s how everything unravels later.
    Another thing to remember is the phone call in the car. When Aaron recognizes Granger in the car, Abe calls Granger at home. Abe refers to himself as James Miller from Putney & Meyers, but Granger knows Abe’s voice at that point from the parties they attended to get funding for their project with the original box. This could have sparked curiosity in Granger, causing him to follow Abe, then traveling in one of the boxes once he discovered what Abe was doing. Too much of this is not shown, so all everyone can do it hypothesize. It would sound like the actions of a father trying to save his kin in my eyes.
    Hope some other people get as much thought out of this movie as I have. It’s interesting to think of all they have to risk every time they use the machines, and furthermore, how much more they have to risk every time they repeat using them. Think of a pile of, well, anything. You can balance it all only for so long. Once it all starts stacking too high, as in the price to pay being too dire, everything will come crashing down eventually. Consequences will go from petty to devastating the more you postpone the one true way to stop it, to never travel again. Greed, lies, deception, anger, hostility, sadness, despair, confusion, all a product of one singular action, the decision to change anything at all. Abe and Aaron tried to go back to the source. That source was right in front of them. “They” were trying to “change” what was to happen naturally, in an unfitting and unnatural way. Thanks for reading my input, cheers. ;D

  7. THANK YOU FOR MAKING THIS TIMELINE, by the way. I just watched Primer and it’s great to see people so invested in intellectual films. I can’t imagine how long it took to create this!

  8. I’m not sure if this is still active. I hope someone catches this.

    There is a slight flaw in Timeline 7. At 15:00, it says there the Abe(3) and Aaron (4) enter their boxes. But at 16:45 Abe (3) starts up the timer for the boxes for the Platts punching plan. Can someone care to explain this?

  9. What’s really happening is that every instance of time travel creates a brand new timeline. What we don’t see is the truly original timeline. Aaron and Abe went into the machine and were never seen again. However from their perspective, they appeared in the past (but in a new timeline). Their counterparts would eventually use time machines to leave this timeline and jump into a new one. As long as they were careful with interfering, they could have maintained this system and the time rules in this universe would have appeared to have been based on fixed time rules (you can never really change time). However they quickly discover this isn’t the case when they start messing with the timeline. They can change time as much as they want, however by preventing second version of themselves from using the machines to leave, they ended up stacking duplicates within the timeline. What we don’t see are the thousands of timelines spawning because of their interference. Mr Granger simply represents some sort of future disaster that they have caused. This panics them because they realise they aren’t in control anymore. Exactly why he came back isn’t really important but it could be related to rachel and the gun incident.

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