Taking Time with Shane Carruth’s Primer (2004)

“No one would say that what they were doing was complicated”: Taking Time with Shane Carruth’s Primer (2004) was originally written as a booklet essay for a home release that never happened. It is intended for readers who have already seen the film, and contains spoilers from the start.


Games of Entitlement

A ‘primer’ is an abecedary, or elementary textbook, used to teach basic reading skills to children. As such, Shane Carruth‘s extraordinary $7000 feature debut Primer appears to advertise itself to viewers from the very outset as something fundamental and simple. Anyone who has tried to understand the narrative comings and goings of this elaborate time-travel film – its multiple entry and exit points, its reduplicated scenes and characters, its suggestion of manifold parameters at play and its hints at the ultimate unknowability of any elided scenes – would be unlikely to conclude that the film represents a straightforward guide to time travel. And yet in a way Primer is just that, given that the dizzying, possibly infinite scenarios over a four-day time span that the film so economically encapsulates are mere child’s play compared to what its characters might do next, beyond the events of the film itself but hinted in the final scene where a much bigger time machine – one that could accommodate, say, multiple travellers plus a much larger supply of food and oxygen – is under construction. I shall not be attempting to unravel in detail the convoluted mechanics of Carruth’s recursive plotting, both because there is not the space (nor the time) to do so here, and because others have already done that work extensively.1The fullest account of the mechanics of Primer is Timothy S.’s The Primer Universe (2008), now out of print but reconstituted (with revisions) as a weblog.  

A ‘primer’ can also be a small charge used to detonate a bigger explosive charge. Although Carruth’s story certainly involves violence – a character’s physical tussle with himself, an angrily jealous man entering a party with a shotgun – these scenes are presented in vague outline as mere background details of plotting, while the focus of the film is on character, moral choice and the clash of free will and determinism. Likewise, the time-travelling device, or ‘Box’, used by these characters bears none of the flashing lights and whizz-bang special effects typically associated with science fiction, but instead comes with the same lo-fi, hand-made quality that also characterises Primer itself. Primer is not a film of literal explosions – rather the detonations and shockwaves triggered by the temporal paradoxes in the film are more figurative and cerebral, as they make a four-day plot-line ramify and rewrite itself repeatedly, leaving a trail of often unforeseen complications as collateral damage in need of further, perhaps endless rewriting.

The term ‘primer’ is also used in molecular biology to denote a short segment of RNA or DNA required to initiate replication by DNA polymerase, enabling a single strand of DNA to fork off into two, with one lagging discontinuously behind the other. This serves as an excellent metaphorical model for a film involving lagging parallel timelines and replications of character. Of course, anyone engaged in the act of ‘priming’ can also be called a ‘primer’. So when we see Aaron (played by Carruth) filling his car’s tank with petrol, or Abe (David Sullivan) fuelling a time-travel box with argon, they are literally ‘primers’ in the sense that they are preparing machines for operation (i.e. priming them); and when Aaron, having recorded his key conversations over several days, travels back in time to pass these recordings on to an earlier version of Aaron, he is precisely coaching (or ‘priming’) himself with advance instructions on what the future will bring. Now, however, perhaps we too are getting ahead of ourselves, so let’s go back to the beginning.

Primer Before Time Travel

Primer begins with Abe, Aaron, Robert (Casey Gooden) and Phillip (Anand Upadhyaya) meeting up, as they have done most evenings and weekends outside of their day jobs for years now, to workshop ideas and invent things in Aaron’s garage. Abe and Aaron are on the cusp of accidentally inventing a device which, if entered as it is powering down, allows its user to exit at the earlier time that it was powered up – although neither of them yet knows this. As we see the four working together, and then contemplating their future in Aaron’s kitchen, on the soundtrack we hear a phone ring, and hear a voice – one that we will soon recognise as Aaron’s – delivering a monologue to an as yet unknown listener: “Meticulous. Yes. Methodical, educated. They were these things. Nothing extreme. Like anyone, they varied, and there were days of mistakes, and laziness, and in-fighting, And there were days, good days, where by anyone’s judgement they would have to be considered clever. No one would say that what they were doing was complicated. It wouldn’t even be considered new – except for maybe in the geological sense. They took from their surroundings what was needed, and made of it something more.”

These words may at first appear to refer to all four amateur inventors and what we are observing them do now, but by the end of the film, it will be clear that the phone call is being made some time in the future to Abe, and that Aaron is really talking only about the two of them and their subsequent escapades in time travel. Aaron will even, much later in the same phone call, recycle a line from his opening sentences (“He took from his surroundings what was needed and made of it something more”), this time with explicit reference to himself revisiting, time and time again, the same incident (involving a gunman at a party) in order to hone it to his advantage. There is a certain slippage here: the characterisation of Aaron and Abe in this phone call applies more or less equally to Aaron and Abe before they discover the Box, and to what Abe and Aaron will become (or remain) after that discovery, because they continue to be, for all their untethered experiences in time, essentially the same people. This is what always keeps Primer grounded, for all its excursions into the terra incognita of science fiction. Time travel may provide the paradoxical mechanics of the plot, but no matter where the film goes, it never stops being a study in moral character, as two friends become victims of their own timeless, tragic flaws. This makes the film’s early scenes, where Aaron and Abe are established, so important to what follows.

If Aaron will later ‘reverse-engineer’ the party through Groundhog Day-like repetitions, in fact Aaron and Abe have been reverse-engineering from the start. Their latest garage project, which eventually will accidentally lead them to make the Box, involves, precisely, taking apart someone else’s already funded work and stripping it down into something more elegant and economic – much as Abe will later keep streamlining and simplifying the design of their Box itself. That said, Aaron does not share Abe’s love of economy. Long before they have built even the prototype of the Box, Aaron recalls to Abe how NASA spent millions developing a zero-gravity pen, only for Russia to suggest ‘a normal wooden pencil’ as the more economic solution. Aaron, though, who prefers overelaborate ingeniousness to Occam’s razor, complains that Phillip “takes the NASA out almost every time”. When Aaron learns that their rivals used expensive materials unnecessarily, he will comment: “They’re just showing off – if you have it, you’ve gotta use it, right?” This principle characterises the messy impulses that will later drive Aaron into his own entirely unnecessary, show-offish side-project to visit and revisit the party, emerging the ‘hero’. A time machine makes this possible – and if you have it, you’ve gotta use it, right?

Indeed, the very same cleverness that enables both Aaron and Abe to recognise and exploit the Box in the first place also makes Abe smart enough to create not just one Box, but a second, secret Failsafe, and makes Aaron smart enough to find, recognise and use the Failsafe behind Abe’s back. Their essential intelligence also drives their paranoia and distrust, as they play a game of 4D chess in a dizzyingly complex set of loops within loops made with more boxes transported back within boxes.2Mise en abîme is a literary term describing the mirroring effect created by placing one artefact within another, sometimes forming an infinite regression, like the boxes within boxes and loops within loops in Primer which replicate, possibly infinitely, characters and timelines. The private company of Aaron, Abe, Robert and Phillip is called ‘Emiba’ (‘abime’ spelt backwards). Cf. Timothy S., ibid.. Before the Box existed, Aaron and Abe were already collaborating behind Robert and Phillip’s back to push their own pet project forward. “I suck as a bad cop,” Abe tells Aaron, when their conspiratorial plan goes wrong. “You should do it, you could fake it better.” Indeed, later Aaron and his own double will form a time-leaping tag team, playing both good and bad cop against an oblivious Abe (and his double). Both Aarons even briefly assail each other. This is “in-fighting” indeed, as the seeds of future treacheries are already sown in the past.

The defining characteristics that divide friends Aaron and Abe are there from the outset. Where Aaron is impulsive, impetuous, cavalier, Abe is vigilant, careful, risk-averse. Aaron strips a fridge for parts even though, as Abe points out, “this isn’t saving us money”. Aaron is eager to turn the new Box on for the first time where Abe urges caution (“Let’s make sure everything is set up right,” Abe insists, “Hold on, Aaron. Wait! Just wait.”). These traits will abide throughout their later experiments with time, as from very early on (although without Abe’s knowledge) Aaron ignores Abe’s “Rules to Follow to Evade Causality Paradoxes or Generally Screwing Your Life Up” and takes risk after risk. Aaron – or at least one of him – will eventually leave everything behind, moving forward to pastures new, whereas Abe will stay put to watch over things, forever cleaning up the mess he helped create from the moment he first turned the machines on. Abe just wants things to go back to what they once were – a now impossible desire that is encoded in his surname, Terger (‘regret’, backwards).  


Time, Paradox and Mortality

“Do you know what they do with engineers when they turn 40?” goes a recurrent joke in Primer. “They take them out and shoot them.”

Time is against our engineers. Robert complains that there is no free time left after the 50 hours a week he spends at work and the 30 in the garage – and while they may originally have started their side-projects for fun, “the time”, as Abe puts it, “for jacking around with Tesla coils and ball lightning in the garage is over.” Now Abe and Aaron want to make hay from all their invested time, even if they have failed as yet to develop a product that anyone – aside from small-time ‘hacker wannabes’ – has wanted to buy. 

Primer is a film brim full of symmetry breaches, cause-and-effect reversals and echoing recursions, but perhaps its greatest temporal paradox is of the tragic variety: Aaron and Abe’s discovery and increasingly addictive use of time travel only makes them lose time rather than gain it, bringing them even closer to their mortality. If, for example, they enter Boxes at 3pm that they switched on at 9am, their round trip from 9am to 3pm will take them a total of 18 hours (9am-3pm experienced twice, plus an additional six-hour reverse trip in the Box), making their whole day last 36 hours. All this time that they spend catching up merely with where they have already been, they are still growing older in real time. For every four-day trip that Abe takes in the Failsafe, he is ageing 12 days – and the bigger Box that Aaron is seen building at the end will presumably allow much longer trips (more room for oxygen, food and water), and let him age even faster without actually getting anywhere. It is like an intensified parody of their situation before they invented the Box – living the drudgery of the same days over and over, and getting nowhere fast. The way Aaron is going, he will hit 40 long before his 35th birthday – and he already knows what they do with engineers when they turn 40.

What is more, the process of time travel takes its own toll on body and brain. The more trips they take, the more noticeable the symptoms (ear bleeds, degradation of hand-writing), with Aaron’s advanced deterioration serving as one of several hints that he has long been travelling behind Abe’s back. So the travellers not only age faster than their surroundings with each looping leap in time, but also acquire the wear and tear associated with reduplication itself, like second-, third-, fourth- (etc.) generation copies of themselves (Aaron speaks of revisiting the Monday evening party 20 times). When Aaron and Abe refer to their Boxes as ‘Coffins’ (because of the shape), the irony is tragic – for these miraculous devices that seem to break the unidirectional bounds of time are also the vessels for these men’s accelerated mortality.


Time Travel as Metacinema

As well as playing Aaron in Primer, Shane Carruth divided himself between the duties of writing, directing, producing, composing, casting, editing and designing the production and sound. He is a true polyhyphenate auteur, much as his Aaron must multiply himself to achieve ambitions that are never entirely clear (punch Platts in the nose? heroically rescue Rachel at the party? break free of one temporal feedback loop so that he can create another even bigger one in which to get stuck?). Aaron frequently behaves like a filmmaker. He plays rôles in accordance with a pre-determined script (in both audio and written form) which he rehearses over and over again, tweaking and altering his lines along the way, and adding his own improvisations, until they are perfectly fine-tuned to the moment. He constantly reedits scenes, using the Box and Failsafe like a Steenbeck to cut back in and introduce new material.

Conversely, Carruth uses montage and disjunctive combinations of sound and image to disrupt our normative perception of time, and to suggest (for those viewing attentively) that his linear-seeming (albeit time-skipping) narrative in fact deftly interweaves multiple iterations of the same underlying and evolving event, unnoticed by Abe who is behind the curve of his own creation. Abe may build the Box and Failsafe himself, but from the moment he shows the Box to Aaron at the self-storage centre (where Aaron, seeing in the storage manifest that Abe has secretly rented a second room, intuits that there is a Failsafe), Aaron is always ahead of Abe – while we, as viewers, are condemned like Abe to be caught in an endless, looping game of catch-up. That game is best appreciated by watching and rewatching the scenes which Aaron and Abe have played and replayed between different versions of themselves, and which Carruth has worked and reworked in the editing suite (post-production took him an arduous, painstaking two years). Multiple viewings are required to appreciate fully the intricacy of Primer‘s paradoxical puzzles, and the circularities of its moral tragedies – but it is time worth taking.

© Anton Bitel

  • 1
    The fullest account of the mechanics of Primer is Timothy S.’s The Primer Universe (2008), now out of print but reconstituted (with revisions) as a weblog.
  • 2
    Mise en abîme is a literary term describing the mirroring effect created by placing one artefact within another, sometimes forming an infinite regression, like the boxes within boxes and loops within loops in Primer which replicate, possibly infinitely, characters and timelines. The private company of Aaron, Abe, Robert and Phillip is called ‘Emiba’ (‘abime’ spelt backwards). Cf. Timothy S., ibid..