PRIMER: Time Travel in a Hard Science Fiction Version

Exceptionally modest film that, in its time travel narrative, managed to maintain the scientific accuracy of the events depicted while simultaneously fitting into the tradition of hard science...

Jakub Piwoński

11 September 2023

Time travel is an exceptionally captivating subject for science fiction. It almost always works effectively on the viewer’s imagination because who among us wouldn’t want to know the future? Who wouldn’t want to change the past?

The memorable Time Machine established a certain standard for storytelling about a hero’s journey through time and space. However, it has one drawback – in indulging in dreams, it often portrays them in a detached manner from reality, treating science somewhat negligently and relying on a series of simplifications. Therefore, there are very few films that have managed to approach the subject as if it were genuinely probable. However, there is one exceptionally modest film that, in its time travel narrative, managed to maintain the scientific accuracy of the events depicted while simultaneously fitting into the tradition of hard science fiction. I’m talking about the 2004 film Primer.


Have you ever heard of the grandfather paradox? It is based on reasoning that directly concerns the concept of time travel, casting doubt upon it. Imagine the following situation: you travel back in time to the past, where you find your own grandfather and kill him. However, you do this before your grandfather fathers your father. So, if your father doesn’t exist, neither do you. And if you don’t exist, there is no time travel. And if there is no time travel, there is no killing your grandfather. In this scenario, however, you will be born and… undertake time travel. Thus, we have a ready-made contradiction.

You have probably experienced similar doubts while dealing with films that explore time paradoxes. For example, I still don’t understand how Kyle Reese could father John Connor when he was sent into the future by John himself. Primer makes the situation even more complex by presenting events that are exceptionally difficult to interpret correctly. In the film, we meet two inventors who, while constructing a new machine, unexpectedly create a time machine. From that point on, things get complicated as the timelines become convoluted – the characters encounter their own duplicates existing alongside them in a different time. The viewer, on the other hand, never has certainty about which “version” of the main characters they are currently observing. This ambiguity continues until the end, which instead of providing the desired explanation, raises another question mark.

I’ve seen the film twice, but not everything in my head has fallen into place as I would have liked. It’s extraordinary that a modest, independent film made for a meager sum of $7,000 can mess with your head so much, partly due to its approach to the subject matter. I’ve never been a physics genius, but I’ve never had trouble navigating the scientific jargon in science fiction films until I watched Primer, which presents a real challenge in that regard. The characters spout scientific terms like slingshots, making it impossible for the viewer to peek behind the curtain. This makes it incredibly difficult to understand. There’s nothing worse than an interesting film where you’re not sure if you’ve understood it correctly.

Primer is entirely an auteur cinema. The creator, Shane Carruth, took on the production of the film, directed it, and wrote the screenplay on his own dime. Developing the entire concept of the film took a year, while the actual filming took only a month. Since Carruth couldn’t find a suitable actor for the role of the second scientist, he decided to play the role himself. He also handled the film’s editing, which extended the production by several more years because Carruth encountered significant challenges in this aspect. Firstly, he didn’t have a professional editing program, and secondly, he quickly realized that he was missing some material. As a result, some of the rapid transitions and shortcuts seen in the film are the result of a lack of alternative solutions.

These difficulties caused Shane Carruth to abandon the project multiple times during post-production. However, looking back as a science fiction fan, I have no doubt that his efforts paid off. Primer is an extraordinary film. The dream of time travel realized in it was never as palpable in cinema before or since. And I’m not the only one who thinks so. Rian Johnson, the director of Looper described Primer as the best time travel film in the history of cinema. Did he exaggerate? Perhaps a bit, because despite all the uniqueness of this work, it’s impossible to ignore the evident communication problems that “Wynalazek” presents. In other words, it’s challenging for it to establish a good relationship with the viewer, make them get to know and like the characters, and encourage them to follow in their footsteps.

Interestingly, when Rian Johnson sent the script of Looper for assessment to Carruth, with whom he was well acquainted, Carruth reportedly bluntly stated that all the time loops presented in it were simply incorrect. However, the truth is that the audience prefers to be fooled in the cinema. When they receive a science fiction film that looks and sounds like it was designed in a laboratory, the difficult scientific barrier can divert attention from the actual value of the work. So, it’s worth remembering Primer.

Jakub Piwoński

Jakub Piwoński

Cultural expert, passionate about popular culture, in particular films, series, computer games and comics. He likes to fly away to unknown, fantastic regions, thanks to his fascination with science fiction. Professionally, however, he looks back more often, thanks to his work as a museum promotion specialist, investigating the mysteries of the beginnings of cinematography. His favorite film is "The Matrix", because it combines two areas close to his heart - religion and martial arts.

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