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There is no official summary of the film.
There is a very nice summary of what was happening in the article "Primer: The Perils and Paradoxes of Restricted Time Travel Narration." It is by Jason Gendler, a Masters student in Critical Studies at the University of California's Department of Film and Television, and was published in the December 2006 journal called Nebula. Gendler describes some of narrative techniques of the film and distinguishes what we see occur on screen, versus what is depicted in narration and montage, and what we must deduce and or speculate.
In addition, there is a quite complex interpretation of the movie in the form of a timeline chart. This chart is unverified and does have inconsistencies with the film. According to this interpretation, there are at least 9 timelines in the story. Edit
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 than 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.
From an interview of Shane Carruth by Wendy Mitchell April 2005 Edit
The voice is that of Aaron, who has traveled back from the future in order to record the events of the following days. This Aaron had traveled back to that same morning and drugs his past self, locking him(self) in the attic (his wife believes the noise coming from there is rats; Aaron advises against spraying for them, pretending it's because the noise could be baby birds). The narrator then encounters an even older iteration of himself who has already made the recordings. They struggle and the narrator wins, but allows the older Aaron to proceed with the meeting with Abe after everything Abe will do is explained to him.
As to which party is being addressed in the phone call, there are two likely possibilities, neither specifically confirmed or refuted by the film itself. The narration seems to be an attempt to prevent Abe from re-writing history so that Aaron will never learn of the time machine. So Abe cannot undo the events to come, the narrator possibly phones his drugged self to explain what he did, why he did it, and what Abe plans to do, feeling he owes himself at least that much. The second possibility is that he is phoning the version of Abe who as yet does not know of the events to come, attempting make amends for the fact that his (Aaron's) actions ultimately ruined (or will ruin) their friendship. As the iteration of Aaron who is speaking on the phone always refers to both Abe and Aaron as "he" or "they," as opposed to "I" and/or "you," it is impossible to definitively demonstrate which party is the addressee. Edit
It is a small toy called a Weeble, an egg-shaped object painted with features and weighted at the bottom so that they will remain upright (hence the advertising slogan "Weebles wobble, but they don't fall down").
The toys were popular during the '70s and '80s, but by the time Primer was going into production, they were no longer readily available. Shane Carruth describes his difficulties in securing one for the film via Ebay on the commentary track. Edit
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 continuallly 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.
In the movie, they use a timer to turn on the boxes. The timer starts, and after 15 minutes it counts down, and the box is turned on. They do this since the instant the box is turned on, a future traveler may appear and they want to avoid meeting their doubles.
Objects in the prototype box appear to age significantly more than normal: watches placed in the box age nearly a day inside the box after only a minute of time has passed outside of the box, and a Weeble toy left in the box five days accumulated 5-6 years of protein build-up. Abe theorizes that an object in the box takes over 1300 loops through time, back and forth between point A (when the box is powered up) and point B (when it powers down) until the process is complete and the object is removed from the box. Therefore, Abe concludes that unlike the watch and the toy, a conscious agent in the box could choose to exit during the process without going through all the loops. This would enable the person to travel back in time from point B to point A. Edit
This scene is a little tricky, because like much of the dialogue in Primer, it isn't overly expository. What Aaron means is that he seems to be agreeing with Abe's explanation that the boxes cannot repeat the same day more than once. Abe argues that you could not live through the day as normal, climb into the box, reemerge, live through the day a second time, and then climb back into the box again, because you would encounter yourself from the first trip through already doing so. Interrupting yourself from making a trip back in time you have already made would cause a paradox.
Later, Aaron realizes that Abe is not correct: "They are not one-time use only. They are recyclable." The narrator reveals how Aaron had come back with a second box and used it repeatedly to travel through the same day multiple times and re-engineer the party to make it perfect: "So how many times did it take Aaron as he cycled through the same conversations lip-synching trivia over and over? How many times would it take before he got it right? Three? Four? Twenty? I've decided to believe that only one more would have done it." Edit
Before Abe did his first trip in the box, he started another box in a different location. This is what he called his "failsafe." If anything went wrong with the trip, he could use this box to go back to a point before anyone else had learned of the machines, and prevent that knowledge from getting out.
The narrator revealed that one of the Aarons had discovered the failsafe box and used it to keep ahead of Abe. The narrator suggests that Aaron took a folded up box back with him, put his own in a different location and then restarted Abe's box at a time later than his new box. Aaron's box becomes a "near-failsafe" and Abe's becomes a "false-failsafe."
Thus as Aaron tells Abe: "I guess it just won't go back far enough." The implication may be that Aaron's box is the earliest point either of them can travel in the timeline, and there will always be an Aaron who came out of the original failsafe in this timeline. Abe can now never travel back in time far enough to change history and prevent his appearance. Edit
Midway through the film, Aaron expresses his desire, should he ever be in an essentially untouchable position, to punch a man named Joseph Platts in the nose. In the opening scene, Aaron is lamenting the group's difficulty thus far with getting any patents for any research or developments coming from their workshop, and makes a brief reference to a bad experience the prior year involving "all that doubletalk from Platts," implying perhaps that Platts, who worked for a company called Gabriel Capital, Inc., was a potential investor who had ultimately shafted the group. The conversation goes on to indicate that Platts had a history of such behavior, and Aaron, who had been in the uncomfortable position of defending Platts to the other group members, eventually expresses his desire for revenge, albeit mild revenge, against the man who put him in such a position, which had obviously generated tension in the group.
Later in the film, Abe concedes to trying out the idea of going through with the act, then using the time machine to retcon the event so that they wouldn't get in trouble for the assault. This attempt is seemingly interrupted by the appearance of Mr. Granger.
At no point in the film does Platts make an on-screen appearance. Edit
According to the writer/director Shane Carruth:
That's purposely vague. Abe and Aaron each have a point in the film where they find themselves in someone else's past, and they both react a little differently to it. This is Abe's moment. This man [Granger] has found out about the machine and he's used it to come back, but they don't know from what point in the future or who told him about it. That's what spurs Abe to reboot the whole thing, that's how he reacts: let's redo everything and then I'm the one in control. It was important that the audience be in the same place that they are there isn't any way to know. That's the one big question that comes up, and I'm satisfied by that that's supposed to be the big question. I stuck with the rule that we were going to be with Abe, that we were going to see his experience.
Village Voice Interview by Dennis Lim published October 5th 2004
On the DVD commentary track, Carruth suggests that Granger's daughter might have been shot by her ex, and either Abe or Aaron told him about the machine to allow him to go back and save her. [In a later part of the interview with Lim, Carruth said: "What I think happened is that Abe told Granger about the machine."] This is how Mr Granger is able to be following them at night later on in the film, yet also be at home in bed to answer their phone call - at the same point in time. However, he does make it clear that this was not his specific explanation for the scene, but merely a likely possibility. Edit
According to the writer/director Shane Carruth:
This isn't really addressed in the film, but the reason Granger is unconcious is because he's suffering from recursion. What I think happened is that Abe told Granger about the machine. This man who's been told by Abe about the machine uses the machine to come back and somehow has an interaction with Abe so that now Abe probably won't tell him about the machine and yet he still finds himself there. Without coming out and saying it, the film is built on the idea that these paradoxes are a way to understand things. The universe is not going to explode or break down if you create a paradox. Whatever's going to break is probably going to be you.
Village Voice Interview by Dennis Lim published October 5th 2004 Edit
Jason Gendler, as a Masters student in Critical Studies at the University of California's Department of Film and Television published an article called "Primer: The Perils and Paradoxes of Restricted Time Travel Narration."
Jonathan Goodwin, an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette published an article called "Sports, Repetition, and Control in Shane Carruth's Primer" in Playing the Universe: Games and Gaming in Science Fiction Ed. David Mead and Pawel Frelik. Lublin: Marii Curie-Sklodowskiej UP, 2007. 141-153.
Corinn Columpar, an Assistant Professor of Cinema Studies and English at the University of Toronto has an article called "Re-Membering the Time-Travel Film: From La Jetée to Primer"[/link]
M. Joseph Young, the Webmaster of Temporal Anomalies in Popular Time Travel Movies has a series of articles about Primer
Kevin Muldoon, a blogger and web developer, has a webpage devoted to Primer with various timeline graphics, links to explanations and links to interviews with Shane Carruth.
Software engineer, Sam Hughes, also discussed and details Primer in his blog. Edit