Time Travel in Primer – What the heck?!!?!?

OK, I’m back now, and I’ve had a chance to poke around at all the standard websites as well as some new ones, to find out what I missed in my 1 ½ viewings of Primer One of the best summaries I’ve found on a site called Things of Interest, where the writer went through the film in a great amount of detail, chronologically as you see it in the film.  Some if it made clear things that were probably supposed to be pretty obvious – like the fact that Rachel is apparently Abe’s girlfriend.  Maybe if I reviewed it again that would be clear, but it was still confusing that Rachel appears to be at that party at the end with another date, etc.  There were other things the writer expressed that I don’t completely buy, but still it helped a lot.  For example, it hadn’t occurred to me to make a connection between the birds or rats in the attic with the fact that that might be a drugged up Aaron up there, or that Aaron’s various behavioral quirks might be due in to the fact that he is already repeating things, and thus is already realizing that he has disconnected himself to “Regular Self’s” life.

Either way, I don’t know if any of this makes the film any better or worse, but I find I’m thinking about it a fair bit, so I’m going to write out my more considered interpretation of what is really going on in this film.

First of all, a basic rule of time travel in Primer is that in spite of Abe’s concerns, it doesn’t seem like you really have to worry about causation paradoxes.  In other words, you don’t have to really worry about killing your own grandfather, or causing yourself not to travel through time, or whatever.  At least not in a “Oh no, now we’ll blink out of existence,” type of way.  It seems like each time you change the past, you are just entering into a new timeline, so the only real danger is that if your previous selves don’t get into that time machine, there’s going to be two of you around.  Which of course is what happens in the film.

(A quick diversion:  one causation paradox that might still matter is that if you tamper with the box while you are in it, traveling backwards in time, than you might cause some serious problems for yourself.  But though they speculate on this, we never see this actually happening in the movie).

So it may be that the easiest way to try to dissect what is happening in the movie is to talk about each separate timeline.  The simplest way that I can sort out what’s going on tells me that there are at least five timelines in the movie.  Some of this is explicit in the movie, some of it is implicit, and some of it is me just making my own, simplest, interpretation.  I’ll number each timeline and also refer to Aaron and Abe with the number of the timeline that they are indigenous to (eg. Aaron1, Abe2, etc.

So, here we go:

Aaron1 & Abe1 invent their machine.  Abe1 tries it and then approaches Aaron1 about it in a way very similar to what we observe in the film. Aaron1 goes to Robert’s party, but Abe1 does not.  The ex-boyfriend comes in threatening Rachel with a shotgun, and what Aaron1 does about it is not clear.  We can be pretty sure he didn’t “rush him”, as that appears to be a different time according to their later conversation.  Abe1 and Aaron1 start using the machine for small financial gain.  I will not consider each time they use the machine as causing a new timeline unless history changes in a notable way, just for convenience sake.  So, even though there are at times 2 versions of Aaron and Abe around at times, they are the same Aaron and Abe, from the same timeline.

(Diversion:  The phone call thing, where Aaron thinks it’s okay to answer the phone because “we’re not back yet,” appears to contradict this.  It implies that they do change history when they travel back 6 hours, even when all their precautions are in place.  But since up until that phone call moment, the various timelines caused by their short time-trips are essentially identical by nearly any observable standard, we’re going to not include these in the examination, just for the sake of needed brevity.)

Sometime during the four days of time traveling, Aaron1 discovers the Fail Safe, deduces its purpose, and makes use of it.

One of the big questions that I’ve come across in thinking this through is when exactly Aaron1 does this – when does he discover the Fail Safe and make use of it the first time.  It’s clear in the film that he uses it at least twice, and for the sake of the simplest explanation let’s just say he only uses it (or his modular duplicates of it) twice.  It doesn’t matter precisely when he uses it – the big issue is whether he uses it before the Thomas Granger incident, or after the Thomas Granger incident.  It’s my interpretation is that the first time he uses it is before the Granger incident, but the second time is right after the Granger incident.  I have reasons for this that I’ll try to make clear.

Why does Aaron1 decide to use the Fail Safe at this point?  It’s probably not particularly because he’s concerned strongly about anything bad happening to Rachel after the party. It must have to do with his dissatisfaction with his life, his fear about not being in control of his life, and his fantasy to act out heroically.  Of course, he also doesn’t want to be subject to Abe’s use of the Fail Safe – by going back first, he maintains control.

Anyway, at this point Timeline1 comes to an end, essentially.  Actually, if we do go with this Timeline theory, than at some point during Timeline1, Aaron just disappears and Abe never hears from him again.  He sees that the Fail Safe is turned off, so he may figure out what’s happened, but that’s it.  He never sees Aaron again.

Final Disposition of Timeline1
Aaron1: Disappeared
Abe1:  Left to continue with his experiments on his own, or whatever
Rachel:  Possibly fated to have something bad happen to her (see below)

So Aaron1 winds up in his past, and we start Timeline2.  First, he sets up and activates a duplicate Failsafe where Abe would expect to find it, presumably moving the one he used to somewhere else (this is a speculation from Things of Interest, which works as well as anything else).  Aaron1 sneaks into his house and drugs Aaron2 (the Aaron indigenous to Timeline2) and stuffs him in the attic. Anticipating that he may have to do this again, he lives out that first day as closely as he can to as he originally did and records his conversations doing it.  He goes to the party and rushes the Shotgun Guy this time, coming across as a bit of a hero, but failing to make sure that the guy gets arrested (though he doesn’t realize this is important at the time).

[The Big Question]
So now comes a big question – does Aaron1 use the 2nd Failsafe at this point, or does he go on to live the life that we’ve seen in the movie?

In other words, which version Timeline are we watching during the first Bench Scene, and from then on until the second Bench Scene?

Dramatically, I’d have preferred it to have been Timeline1 – Aaron looks genuinely confused as to what is happening during all those scenes.  But that ignores the sounds in the attic, Aaron’s apparently heroic actions at the party that Robert and Philip talk about, and his overall sense of disconnection and dissatisfaction at his life.  It’s enough evidence to make me feel like we’re probably not watching Timeline1 during this point.

There are a few problems with thinking that the Aaron from the first bench scene is from beyond Timeline2.  It would mean that the Aaron that Abe is speaking to in the first bench scene is the same one he’s talking to in the second scene.  This would mean, in later scenes, that Abe is prescient over Aaron, but this does not seem to be the dynamic between the characters.  Another issue is that during the original viewing of that scene and the subsequent related scenes, Aaron is not always wearing his earpiece.  If it was his first time through, he might not be.  On the second time through, he’d be recording things, but might not have the earpiece in all the time.  But based on everything we’re told, we should expect him to be wearing it the third time through.

But there is some evidence to support the idea that in the first Bench scene, we’re seeing an Aaron from beyond Timeline 2.  First, there is a line Aaron says to Abe as they’re planning their interference at the party.  He says, “And from what Robert tells you, he didn’t do it [fire the gun] tonight.”  He seems to be saying that Abe’s conversation with Robert comes from his own relative future – meaning that Abe has already seen what they are about to experience.  Though of course, he could just be confused.  I mean, who wouldn’t be?

Another bit of evidence here comes from Things of Interest’s comment that the reason Abe passes out in the second bench scene is because he’s falling apart after four days of no food and being drugged up.  It’s obvious that Aaron in that scene is not suffering the same effects, so it may be that he hasn’t just returned from such a long trip.  On the other hand, he’s had a bit more time that morning so maybe he’s just had time for some peanuts and a shower.

So my interpretation is that this a Weakness in the Film – not because the answer is ambiguous, but because none of the answers seems to actually fit the premises that the film gives.  So, you can with equal validity argue either of these ideas.  Depending on your conclusion, you’d need to make certain adjustments to my analysis.  But to avoid this long post from turning into a bit of a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure in itself, I’m just going to go with my favorite idea, which is to say that it’s Timeline2 that we’re watching during all those scenes.
[/The Big Question]

So anyway, assuming the answer I’ve come up there, Timeline2 continues to play out as we’ve seen in the movie.  Aaron1 continues to drug Aaron2 in the attic while he tries to live his life, making more money as he does.  Eventually, he goes past the point that he originally used the FailSafe, so he’s no longer “repeating” things, instead having moved into new territory.  He grows increasingly discontent with his life.

One day, Timeline3 is quietly created when Aaron1 forgets to leave behind his cell phone…twice!

Final Disposition of Timeline2
Aaron1 & Abe2: Both disappears when they enter the box, shortly after the hotel scene with the cell phones
Aaron2:  Drugged and in the attic.  Hopefully, someone will find him before he dies.
Rachel:  Possibly fated to have something bad happen to her (see below)

This Timeline plays out exactly like Timeline2, except that when Kara calls Aaron he doesn’t answer the phone.  Also, presumably, the local Abe – Abe3 – doesn’t get upset at Aaron for bringing his phone, since he it probably never rings.  Thus, Aaron3 and Abe3 will get into the box just like their predecessors did, except when they disappear, both Aaron1 and Abe2 are still around to take their places, so nobody notices anything wrong. (In whatever Timeline they wind up in, Aaron3 will answer thus answer his phone when Kara calls – possibly changing Abe’s decisions later that night, etc.)

Later, Abe2 gets the idea to try an experiment in changing history by beating up Joseph Platts and then making sure that their earlier selves don’t get up in the middle of the night, and get into the box, leaving them to continue living their lives.

We don’t know what ultimately happened in this Timeline, but we can speculate that something really bad happened to Rachel some time after the Party.  At least, we can speculate this because that seems to be what Aaron1 speculates – it’s no longer good enough to just be a hero at the party – he’s got to make sure that the Shotgun guy goes to jail, so he can’t bother Rachel later on.  The speculation (by other viewers) seems to be that something happened to Rachel, which for some reason led Abe to tell Thomas Granger about the boxes, motivating him to come back as far as he could (5:00 pm that evening) to try to do something about it.  This creates Timeline4.

We presume that everything in Timeline4 is the same as Timeline3 up until they drive past Granger’s car at 2:00 am.  This is where things get strange for our labeling system.  Both the Aaron in the car and the Aaron drugged in the attic are “indigenous” to this timeline, but for convenience sake, I’m going to keep referring to the one in the car as Aaron1b, and the guy in the attic is going to become Aaron4 (even though he is exactly the same as Aaron2, at least up until the point of diversion).  Abe on the other hand will just become Abe4.

Anyway, this is the Timeline where Abe and Aaron run into Granger (actually Granger3 – since Granger4 is on the phone when Abe4 calls him).  Granger falls unconscious and they discover this strange effect that when Abe gets too close to him, the guy passes out.  Director Shane Carruth said in an interview that this is possibly because of a causality problem – it’s Abe who told him about the time travel, but as Granger comes closer to interfering, Abe will never tell him.  The paradox is knocking Granger out.  This doesn’t really add up because there’s lots of other examples of people causing causality paradoxes that don’t cause people to collapse into unconsciousness.  So I don’t have an answer for this.  We could come up with all sorts of wacky ideas about what happened in Timeline3 to explain it, but the characters will never know precisely what happened there, and neither will we.  I would consider this another Weakness in the Film.

So, this whole thing with Granger leads both Abe4 and Aaron1b to decide separately to use their FailSafe’s.  Abe because he’s worried that the whole thing is getting out of hand, and Aaron because he realizes that he’s possibly failed to prevent something bad from happening to Rachel (a speculation from Things of Interest).  Aaron is more likely to get into his first (since he’s already prepared for this sort of thing), but in any case, Aaron will arrive earlier in the past (since he himself has set up the Failsafe that Abe is using).  But since both Aaron and Abe are leaving from the same Timeline at roughly the same time and arriving at roughly the same time, I’m going to say they both wind up in the same Timeline.  To say otherwise would necessitate a change in my answer to The Big Question up above.

Final Disposition of Timeline4
Aaron1b: Disappeared
Aaron4: Locked in the attic.
Abe4:  Disappeared
Granger1:  Going about his business, depending on what his double does
Rachel:  Uncertain.  It depends, presumably, on what Granger2 gets up to
Granger2: Semi-comatose somewhere (I’m not sure where they were keeping him)

This kicks into gear on Monday morning again, when first Aaron1b and then Abe4 show up from the future.  When Aaron1b turns up (bringing the tapes he made back in Timeline2), he finds Aaron1 has already drugged Aaron5 and stuck him in the attic.  He tries to fight him for some reason and loses, but convinces Aaron1 to take a hike anyway.  I’m not sure where his wife and daughter are during all this drama.  But anyway, Aaron1b now heads into his day, hoping to relive the day as closely as possible but in such a way as to permanently stop the Shotgun guy.  He is surprised when Abe4 turns up and collapses in front of him.  Abe4 had previously gassed Abe5 and locked him in a closet.  Aaron1b and Abe4 decide to team up to make certain once and for all that the Shotgun guy is finally dealt with.  In spite of Aaron1’s voice over speculations to the contrary, they apparently succeed (or at least believe they do).    Aaron1b decides to leave, to travel the world and do who knows what.  Abe4, on the other hand, decides to stay back and make sure that Abe5 never figures out how to make his machine work, saving him all this trauma.  They part on unfriendly terms.  Abe5 and Aaron5 both break out of their respective prisons, presumably never knowing what had happened to them.

Later, Aaron1 calls someone on the phone and narrates to him the events of the film.

At another point, either Aaron1 or Aaron1b, or possibly both, instruct a bunch of French guys to make a really big time machine, or possibly a room full of little ones.

Final Disposition of Timeline5
Aaron1: Left traveling, possibly building more time machines in France, after having made the Narration Phone Call
Aaron1b: Left traveling, possibly building more time machines in France
Aaron5: Escaped from being locked in the attic, continuing his life, and presumably advising Abe5 to give up on his machine.
Abe4:  Sneaking around his duplicate, making sure he never builds his machine, and protecting Aaron5 and his family from any madness from Aaron1b.
Abe5: Frustrated that his machine doesn’t work, especially after being gassed and locked in a closet all day, but probably eventually moving on with other areas of research.
Rachel:  Presumably fine.

If we say that the answer to the Big Question is that the first bench scene is from Aaron’s third time through things rather than the second, than we get this:
Timeline1 – Same as above
Timeline2 – Same as above, except it ends probably shortly after the party, when Aaron1 uses the Failsafe the second time
Timeline3 – Aaron1 deals with Shotgun guy at the Party in a way that he thinks is sufficient, and continues to live the life we saw in the movie, until…
Timeline4 comes into being because the phone call snafu, and then more significantly…
Timeline5 kicks in when Granger comes back, causing Abe to panic and use the Failsafe.
Timeline6 – Everything that we see after Abe uses the FailSafe.  In this version, Aaron presumably uses Abe’s knowledge of the future to even more effectively deal with Shotgun guy.

[Late Thought Which Might Change Everything]
It just occurred to me that another reason to argue that the first Bench scene comes from the film’s final Timeline is that unless Aaron set up two FailSafe’s after he returns to Monday, then my above theory (that during Bench Scene 1 we are watching Timeline2) would necessitate that both Aaron and Abe used the same FailSafe machine to come back to Monday morning in the film’s final fourth.  Hmm, that may be putting the weight of evidence toward my “alternatively” text above.
[/Late Thought Which Might Change Everything]

So…I guess I’m really into this mechanics of time travel in movies idea.  This whole thing just kind of gripped me today until I could write it out.  And that process was almost like an example of shifting timelines, as I kept refining and updating my ideas (and this post) as I went along.  But I’m done now, and hopefully I’ll be free of it, at least until I have the misfortune of watching Déjà Vu or Looper again.

If all else fails, I’ll just pop in Summer Time Machine Blues and breathe in the contentment that springs forth from internal narrative logic.


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