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5 Tips to Watching 'Primer' (With No Spoilers)

Primer is now available on Netflix streaming, so if you're a Netflix subscriber, now's the time to watch it. You can also see it on Hulu (with commercials). This is one of my all-time favorite movies. There's a faction that believes watching Primer without knowing anything is the best way to watch it. Another faction believes spoiling everything is the way to go so you can understand it. I believe some of the story should be a secret, but a little knowledge will prepare you. It's not your normal movie. Here are five things that will help.

1. In the Beginning, You'll Wonder "Who Are These Guys?" - One of the problems with watching Primer is that there are very few moments where people stand around giving exposition to explain things. You're often dropped into a scene with no setup, and no lead-in. A lot of the background of the movie is implied or based on context. That makes it hard to follow at times, but I think it's a really brilliant method of making the movie feel real.

But the beginning is where you'll struggle most. You're waiting for someone to explain what's going on, and that moment really never comes. So here's a brief explanation without spoiling anything major to get you started.

In the beginning you'll see four guys in a garage, working on tech, and arguing with each other. Who they are and what's going on isn't really explained in detail. These four guys are engineers who've basically created their own research lab in a garage. They have all this equipment and take turns manufacturing product, working on inventions, and pursuing research projects. They have an argument that reflects a split between two factions of the group. On one side, they want to do research that leads to an invention that will make them rich and famous. On the other side, they want to do research just for the fun of it. It's the classic struggle of practical research vs. applied research. Our heroes, Abe and Aaron, are the faction that wants to get rich.

2. You Won't Understand What They're Talking About - Many people who watch the movie complain about the dialogue. Not just that a lot of it doesn't make any sense, but that it's hard to hear. Let's start with the making sense.

Most of the characters are engineers, and their dialogue reflects that. They stand around talking about things that you'd hear on the bridge of the Enterprise, like mercury baths and power cycles. The key is, don't worry about the techno-babble. Just like on Star Trek, a lot of it isn't meant to be understood. It's intended to show how engineers really talk with shorthand and jargon. Most of it isn't really necessary to understand the main story. Just know that what they're talking about is how to build their machine. But if you do understand what they're talking about, you'll know the writer did his homework.

As for the other problem, there is a lot of mumbling, whispering, shorthand, and asides. This is intentional on the part of the director, because he wanted the movie to feel realistic. He actually plays the main character himself, because he found professional actors made the dialogue sound too polished. One good tip is to watch Primer with the subtitles on.

3. You'll Probably Think it's Boring at First - Primer is one of those movies that gets better with repeat viewings, but the first time you watch it will probably be a little dull in the beginning. You'll see people sitting around a table talking about their refrigerator. You'll see one character argue with his wife about the rats in the attic. You'll think there are a lot of scenes that don't have anything to do with the story, and are just plain boring. Just pay attention and wait, because the more you remember from the first half, the more you'll understand the second half. That because once you've gotten halfway through, there's a twist that makes you realize everything you thought was wrong, everything that seemed like unnecessary rambling was important, and the whole movie will come into focus.

4. In the End, You'll Be Confused - This is a hard fact: almost no one who watches Primer the first time walks away satisfied. You'll sit there going, "that was it? I don't understand. Why did he do that? What happens to that other guy? What happens next? What about that other thing?" That's okay.  Unless you have a photographic memory, it's easy to miss a lot of crucial plot points buried in the minutiae. Even after the movie is over, there are a lot of things that aren't spelled out, and require some thought to understand. That's why, if you really want to enjoy 'Primer', you'll rewind and watch it again. Primer is one of those movies that rewards you every time you see it with new insights and deeper meaning. It's one of those rare films that challenges your perceptions of narrative like Memento. At the same time, be aware that some of the questions raised by the movie have no definite answer. Fans of the movie still puzzle over some questions, like why Granger went back, and who the phone call in the voice-over is for. That's part of the fun.

5. Okay, Maybe a Little Spoiler - I'm of the opinion that it's not really possible to spoil Primer. Not only is it surprising even when you know what's going on, but the more you know, the easier it becomes to follow. So if you truly want to go in cold, then change the title to "4 Tips to Watching Primer" and move on. Otherwise, here's the deal. The movie is about two guys who accidentally invent a time machine, and the consequences of their trying to control its effects. It's also about friendship and the abuse of power. It also wouldn't be a bad idea to review this overview of how the time machine works

Have you seen Primer? Did these tips help?
[Image Source: TV Calling]

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  1. Sounds like a fascinating movie, and one that my engineer husband might really enjoy!

  2. I watched it a few months ago on DVD from Blockbuster. I think it was part of this list on Facebook or something of 50 great movies I haven't seen or something. It was boring and I was confused, so maybe I need to print out your guide and then watch it again.

  3. I haven't watched it yet. (Despite my quest to reach the end of NetFlix.) I'm sure it's not that confusing. I like thinking movies, like Memento.
    Would it appear in your Top Ten Movie Countdown?

  4. check this explanation out to demystify an otherwise confusing movie http://www.astronomytrek.com/primer-2004-explained/

  5. Digestive PyrotechnicsJanuary 23, 2015 at 3:50 AM

    Here's a stepwise explanation of each of the timelines that Abe and Aaron create. This movie is quite the work of art.



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