When I first saw Shane Carruth’s 2004 film Primer, I was furious. I came out of the theater cursing and spitting, convinced that the writer and director had intentionally dangled the hope of understanding before us, but giving us far too little information for a coherent picture.
In those early days of online discussion, there was just one little forum for conversing about the movie. I ransacked it and found a few posts that excited my imagination. While my wife went to work the next day, I used my privilege as a teacher on summer break to see it again in the theater. Then I called her at work and announced that we would be seeing it again on Friday night.
In the years since, I have watched the movie over a hundred times (often with my Creative Writing students, to whom I show it), made a video of indirect analysis, recorded a commentary track, and scoured the web endlessly for relevant conversations. I’ve had many excellent discussions with friends and strangers, about many of the film’s aspects. But not all of them.
Most people get hung up on timelines and questions about the physics. I think xkcd’s timeline is the most accurate, and I won’t even pretend to know anything about the science of Primer. Some other deserving areas haven’t gotten much — so I will give them some here. Perhaps wiser folks than myself have already dissected the following elements. If so, I would greatly appreciate links. Otherwise, let’s have a look.
Obviously the following is packed with spoilers for Primer. If, somehow, you haven’t seen it yet, go watch it right now.
Before We Begin
Just so no one’s confused, a couple of quick points: Abe and Aaron spend most of the movie trying to outsmart each other, creating “coffins” that allow them to go back in time. Aaron wants to “engineer a perfect moment” to be a hero by stopping Rachel’s ex-boyfriend from terrorizing Robert’s birthday party. Abe wants to stop the entire coffin-building process, since it results in Mr. Thomas Granger’s vegetative state. But he can’t beat Aaron back to the start of the failsafe machine, so they part ways at the end of the film as enemies. Abe refuses to let go of Kara & Lauren, while Aaron refuses to abandon his dreams of large-scale heroics, making a bigger box so he can prevent the next 9/11. (This last bit is my hypothesis about Aaron’s intention, but I’m pretty confident on it. @ me.)
How many Abes and Aarons are there? I don’t know, and I don’t much care. Again, we can speculate forever, and there’s no shortage of folks online who will be happy to indulge you. My interests lie elsewhere.
1. “He Iooks at you Iike you’re a six-year-oId kid.”
Thomas Granger — Rachel’s father — is described as “their last, best hope of funding”, and the gang’s manner of speaking to him reveals their desperation to make a name for themselves through their Emiba company or club or whatever it is. (They vote for everything, down to the router Phillip wants to buy.) Their eagerness to be taken seriously by the elder Granger conflicts with their total lack of readiness for the monumental enterprise in which they are engaged. Abe (who, according to Aaron — unreliable narrator though he is — “can’t get near the guy without passing out”) waffles between “Mr. Granger” and “Thomas”, while Aaron barks “Hey you!” as he chases him down the neighbor’s driveway.
Confident adults speak easily to each other and they know which names to use. The inability of Abe and Aaron (and Robert and Phillip) to converse with this man (solely for the purpose of getting some of his money, at least at first) shows us how scared and unprepared they are. They worry that perhaps they really are six-year-old kids, and very few of their actions prove otherwise.
2. “We can use the freon too.”
Aaron has just acquired a new refrigerator for Christmas, another piece in the perfect domestic dollhouse that Abe covets so violently. So when it’s time to cannibalize an appliance for copper tubing and freon, Aaron goes after Abe’s fridge. Same with his catalytic converter. (If it’s not enough, Aaron says, “we’ll pull the one out of my truck”. Somehow I doubt it ever comes to that.)
I don’t know if Aaron is being a jackass, really, but Abe surely feels these slights and assumptions. He’s charitable to “those kids” he’s letting stay with him, and we get the sense that he’s just generally a doormat. He tells Aaron at the end that “there hasn’t been a reason to show you what I’m capabIe of”, and obviously we don’t know. But in a story with so much insubstantial social performance, how much credence do we really allow Abe here?
The shame, of course, is that this rage has to go somewhere. He clearly vents some of it onto Rachel, but there’s got to be plenty exploding inside himself. It’s hard to know whether to feel sorry for Abe, or get angry at how badly he’s dealing with his emotions.
3. “I want you to believe it.”
Both Abe and Aaron are dedicated to convincing the other one of the truth they have come to absorb. Therefore Abe doesn’t just tell Aaron about the protein buildup; he has to walk Aaron through meetings with two different researchers. Abe doesn’t just explain the coffin he’s made (and used); he hands Aaron the binoculars so he can watch Abe’ going in the box.
See it with your own eyes and there’s nothing to disbelieve. This is another level of artifice; they both know there’s plenty we can hide in plain sight. The question is: Who gets the upper hand? The answer is constantly shifting throughout the story. Abe builds the first coffin, and he hides the failsafe from Aaron — but not for long. Aaron gets the idea first to go back to Monday (or whenever the bench scene takes place), but that notion soon becomes irrelevant once they each have their own failsafe machines.
This is why the scene of Abe looking down on Aaron sitting on the bench is so significant; he believes he’s getting the drop on Aaron, revealing something his friend doesn’t know. And the first time through — when Aaron actually is listening to March Madness — he is. But we don’t know if that’s what we’re seeing when we first watch that scene. By the second time, of course, Abe is about to be blindsided by all that Aaron has seen and learned and done.
So is the entire process fake? Not really; Abe and Aaron trust each other at the start of the film. They don’t trust Robert and Phillip, which we see right away. When Robert steps away, Abe and Aaron begin whispering secret messages. Aaron even watches over his shoulder to see if Kara is around while speaking to Abe about the box. But the bond between Abe and Aaron is secure for the first third of the movie, at least. Of course it’s possible that this bond is all pretense, but that cuts to the core question of whether we can really trust anyone, and that’s a psycho-social interrogation for which I have neither the time nor the professional training to explore here.
4. “If you have it, you have to use it.”
At the risk of severe oversimplification, end-of-the-film Aaron embodies the principle of utility and imposition of order. We’ve got the box, he says through his actions, so we’ve got to use it. We may end up with a few vegetative Thomas Grangers, much like the coma patients in Brain Candy, but those are acceptable losses.
Abe, meanwhile, embodies a principle of natural order and embrace of chaos. He’s prepared to take pieces out of the box that his double is making, and he’s convinced he can get them to move on to other things. The world will only have whatever box(es) Aaron is building in his French-speaking country.
We can see a metaphorical connection here to Confucius and Lao-Tzu in China during the 6th Century BCE. Confucius stressed the importance of social rules and ethical behavior. Lao-Tzu, meanwhile, urged his adherents to follow the way that cannot be named (“the tao”), obeying the principle of “wu wei”, or “non-acting”.
If my hypothesis of Aaron’s quest to prevent the next 9/11 is correct, then he reflects a grand Confucian vision of imposing rules on the world. The box enables this; he can use his (supposed) “prescience” to make the world a better place by transcending precrime and preventing certain evils altogether. Who knows what he could do to the next Hitler, if he gets to him before he even quits art school?
Abe, meanwhile, believes that the box shouldn’t exist at all — or at least the world should have as few as possible. Whatever happens is what is supposed to happen, and the evil around us is the result of interference with the way. Abe’s drinking of water in the final moments may not be accidental; Lao-Tzu explains: “The highest excellence is like (that of) water. The excellence of water appears in its benefiting all things, and in its occupying, without striving”.
This dynamic, or an inverted version of it based on artifice, appears in the very first scene, after they argue with Robert and Phillip about which direction their company should go. Aaron says “I suck at the bad cop”, foreshadowing his Confucian attempt to impose order through force. Then he says Abe “can fake it better”, foreshadowing how both of them pretend to experience things for the first time.
Both Abe and Aaron are driven by their egos, of course, and I can’t decide whose situation at the end of the film is more tragic: Aaron, for abandoning his wife and child to pursue his heroic dreams, or Abe, for abandoning his own life and dreams to cling to Kara & Lauren. Still, no one’s motivations are purely based on one element or another. Despite their narcissistic preoccupations, both guys reflect intriguing parallels to our ancient Chinese friends.
I won’t deny that I’m out on an analytical limb here. But that’s where the best fruit is, man.
5. “What does this company do?”
Capitalism has values. Every company does things, and investing without an understanding of an organization’s activities is folly at best (willful abetting of atrocities at worst). Aaron asks what RGWU does, and Abe says: “It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that the price goes up.” This is the basic tenet of modern American capitalism; who cares? We want profit for shareholders, regardless of the externalities (especially the horrible negative consequences dumped on the rest of the world).
I don’t read this line as willful ignorance on Abe’s part; that’s my own anti-capitalist leaning. But it does reflect Abe’s naivete; any smart investor knows that you need to know something about a company to invest well in it. Of course Abe believes (sensibly) that he’s got a surefire shortcut for purposes of short-term financial gain, and in this one instance he’s right. His childlike certainty about the irrelevance of RGWU’s corporate activities assumes that he need consider no cause/effect chain outside of his mid-cap fund.
But what if RGWU works with Thomas Granger’s venture capital firm? What if Mr. Granger sees a blip on his radar screen (since he would certainly be aware of what RGWU does) and digs into the mid-cap fund, so that it does not hide Abe’s activities so securely. Maybe that’s how Granger finds out about the box. This is just one possible explanation of how maddeningly insufficient Abe’s pronouncement is, focused only on his personal self-interest.
It doesn’t take much imagination to dream up a scenario where RGWU’s activities, financed by a little extra support during one day of trading, result in a catastrophe for the world economy, an environmental nightmare, or a Stranger Things-style rift into a parallel demonic realm. All of it brought to you by “one good trade” at the hands of Abe and Aaron.
6. “There’s always leaks.”
This is what’s called, in chaos theory, “sensitive dependence on initial conditions”. One little change can lead to a universe of alternative outcomes. A butterfly flaps its wings in New York and the air mixes with jetstreams to create a hurricane in Japan.
This is why Aaron is dead wrong when he says “We’re prescient.” The simple fact is that our world is far too complex for any person to “know everything”. After all, at one point Aaron doesn’t even know that he has his own cell phone in his pocket, right? That one small thing — a call going to one device instead of another — sets a chain of events into motion that somehow leads, through a series of unknowable answers, to Thomas Granger lying comatose in the guest bedroom.
Every enterprise in which we engage must be approached with the humility to accept some element of the unknown. Things fall apart. Everybody makes mistakes. There’s always leaks.
How does Scrabble work? Well, when one player puts down a word, another player can challenge its legitimacy. The word is sought in the dictionary; if it’s found, the challenging player loses a turn. If it’s not in the dictionary, whoever played the bogus word loses a turn.
Aaron’s use of the non-official-word “evacipate” is an attempt to bluff Abe, to see if he’s willing to risk losing a turn by challenging it. Abe, ever the timid lad, doesn’t take any chances. (Or at least we don’t see him mounting a challenge.)
This dynamic is repeated throughout the story. Will Robert and Phillip buy Aaron’s story about spraying for bugs? Will Rachel believe Abe when he says she needs to come to the party? There’s a tremendous amount of dissembling and manipulation here, and the social dynamics fascinate me just as much as the time-travel elements. Maybe more.
8. “My wife. So good. So pure.”
As usual in American cinema, the women are minor characters — in this case, mere props and almost invisible. It’s a story about manhood and six-year-old boys, so Kara’s not meant to be center stage. I don’t fault the movie (more than other movies) for its failure to pass The Bechdel Test.
But Kara’s barely even a person here. She appears in three or four scenes, and has only a handful of lines. She’s meant to represent the domestic ideal; we see her cleaning up after dinner (forcing leftover food into Robert’s hands), folding laundry, and carrying Lauren to the car as the family heads to a social outing.
Rachel, then, is the negative female archetype: She tries to “make Abe happy”, but fails miserably. (One wonders if Abe could ever be happy with any woman other than Kara.) He says Aaron is a fool to risk his life — but “especially the welfare of Kara and Lauren” — for “someone like Rachel” who “practically begs for this”, meaning violence from her ex-boyfriend.
That we meet these women only through indirect characterization (pathological and unreliable though it is) reduces them to something less than one-dimensional characters. They are mere shadows of actual people. These gender dynamics don’t take away from the greatness of the film, but they’re worthy of note (as is the general lack of racial diversity, Phillip’s tiny role notwithstanding).
9. “It’s this entireIy separate worId and you encompass most of it.”
Abe and Aaron have access to a dimension the rest of us get only in tiny glimpses. In Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut compares the human relationship with time with a man strapped to a flatcar moving along a rail.
[Billy’s head was] encased in a steel sphere which he could never take off. There was only one eyehole through which he could look, and welded to that eyehole were six feet of pipe. […] The flatcar sometimes crept, sometimes went extremely fast, often stopped — went uphill, downhill, around curves, along straightaways. Whatever poor Billy saw through the pipe, he had no choice but to say to himself, ‘That’s life.’
With their coffins, Abe and Aaron can remove the steel sphere and leave the flatcar. They get to move beyond the ordinary human realm of time and roam freely. (Well, more freely than the rest of us, anyway.) This brings an unusual calm to them at first; they describe a shared dream where the ocean’s tide “keeps going in and out”. This is a transcendental moment of harmony with those elements usually obscured by time’s relentless arrow.
But they get it twisted. When Abe and Aaron step outside of time, they confuse this ability to traverse an extra dimension with omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence. Rather than enjoying the remarkable opportunity at their fingertips for its own sake — seeing more of the world, perhaps, or appreciating a hidden moment in the life of a loved one — their cling to their egos and obsessions. They confuse their proximity to the “mystical oneness of all creation” (as David Foster Wallace called it in 2005) with being the only meaningful creatures in existence.
10. “You brought your cell phone?”
One of the reasons I love this movie is because the cell phone is the bad guy. Aaron doesn’t even realize it’s in his pocket — had he been more mindful and aware of his surroundings, they wouldn’t have broken symmetry, and Mr. Granger would never have ended up in a vegetative state. (Well, okay. He still might. Or Aaron might go to jail (or worse) for assaulting Joseph Platts.)
After 18 years of teaching, I’ve come to see the smartphone as public enemy number one to an enlightened and engaged citizenry. In our school, kids walk the halls glued to their phones, watching YouTube videos as they climb stairs. Never mind the physical hazards here; how bland is the mush their minds are being turned to?
I am probably engaging in the same sky-is-falling paranoia many in my parents’ generation succumbed to, when video games became household realities in our homes. But I feel the lure of the smartphone; I take mine out at the first sign of boredom, and I recognize it as a threat to healthy IRL interactions. I want my students to understand the nature of this beast.
11. “You look for the cat. It’s what you do.”
There’s a horrible tedium of going through a process over and over and over and over. Consider that previous sentence. You probably didn’t even read each “over”. You got bored and skipped ahead, right? But Aaron can’t skip ahead. And when Abe tries to understand why they’re even looking for the cat (because this is, presumably, his first time through) after Aaron says “I hope the thing runs away”, Aaron sighs and explains “It’s what you do.”
He’s toying with Abe, but he’s also venting about his situation. Even if it’s only Aaron’s second time through (or, more likely, his third), he’s got to be bored out of his mind going through the motions, “lip-synching trivia over and over”.
Then there’s the whole question of causality. If you know how today is going to unfold, then how can you claim to have any free will? “What’s worse?” Aaron asks. “Thinking you’re being paranoid, or knowing you shouId be?” Perhaps ignorance about the future is bliss, but even if you’re only 99% certain about tomorrow’s rainstorm, is it paranoid to bring an umbrella?
I’ve been there, Aaron. Every six months I start my classes all over with a new group of students. I’m going to have some driven, imaginative kids — who usually take themselves too seriously. I’m going to have some stressed, overburdened students — who heroically struggle against family strife and college debt. And I’m going to have a lot of bored slackers who barely pass by the skin of their teeth.
And at some point during the semester, I’ll show them Primer. I’ll greet them on the first day with my earbud in (it gives me a five-second lead on the world), saying: “There he is. I’ve been calling you all morning.” And they’ll get confused, and I’ll say “I hope you’re not implying that any day is unimportant at Cortex Semi.” It’s what you do.
12. “Tell me I came back and did all this for nothing.”
Aaron’s attempt to bamboozle Abe into luring Rachel to the party is all about Aaron’s ego. After all, if they know the guy never fires, then Rachel is never in any danger, right? There are, as Abe says, a thousand other ways to make sure the guy gets dealt with. But those paths don’t let Aaron look like a hero.
One of Aaron’s saddest moments is when he lays a guilt trip on his friend, claiming that without Abe’s help, he “did all this” (lying in a coffin for four days, while any food is “a luxury”) for “nothing”. It’s a shocking reminder that Aaron is totally gone at this point. I don’t know when he wrote Kara off, but he’s still got Abe on his side at this point — and yet he’s willing to push him into Guilt Gulch for the sake of the hero’s parade in his head.
There are other things I’d love to discuss about this movie, but this will suffice for now. If you have any reactions or questions, or just like to discuss great movies, drop me a line.
And finally: In case you haven’t seen it, graphic designer Christopher G. Wright made a superb poster for a fictional sequel. I’d love to see that film.