Movie review by
Jeffrey M. Anderson, Common Sense Media
Primer Movie Poster Image
Brainy, fascinating time-travel tale has violence, language.
  • PG-13
  • 2004
  • 77 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

There's a "be-careful-what-you-wish-for" cautionary tale about messing around with the forces of the universe, especially with money as the goal. The greed message isn't really resolved (no lessons are learned).

Positive Role Models & Representations

Although the characters are incredibly smart, they are also somewhat unscrupulous, intending to use their knowledge mainly for financial gain.


Brief fighting, choking, knocking unconscious. Dialogue about a man waving a shotgun at a party. Brief images of a shotgun. Bleeding ears (side effects of time traveling).


Infrequent language includes "fags," "prick," "hell," "jacking around."


A reference to Wal-Mart. An old Hasbro "Weeble" toy is used in several scenes, but not referenced. Papermate pen shown.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Characters take Dramamine while time-traveling. Drugged drink, knocking out character. Social drinking at party.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Primer is an independent sci-fi movie about time travel. It's very talky and brainy, and often confusing, but its intelligence and confidence have made it a cult classic, and for teen viewers and their parents, it's worth diving into more than once. Violence includes brief fighting and choking, knocking a character unconscious, and bleeding ears (side effects of time traveling). There's dialogue about a man waving a shotgun at a party, plus brief images of a shotgun. Language is mild, and includes uses of "fags," "prick," "hell," "jacking around." There's some social drinking at a party, characters take Dramamine while time-traveling, and a drink is drugged. We hear a spoken reference to Wal-Mart, a Papermate pen is shown, and an old Hasbro Weeble toy is used in several scenes.

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What's the story?

In PRIMER, inventors and entrepreneurs Aaron (Shane Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) are working in their garage, trying to create a new kind of superconductor that doesn't need to be cooled. During testing, a toy placed inside the machine begins to grow a certain kind of mold at an accelerated rate. The pair calculates that the machine has created a loop in time, and by building a bigger one, they can climb inside and travel back in time one day. They make plans to play the stock market from the day before, while taking great pains to make sure they don't disrupt the space-time continuum. But as the days grow more and more complex, mistakes begin to be made. And then there are the side effects.

Is it any good?

Brainy, technical, and talky, this low-budget sci-fi movie breaks the rules of storytelling; it's deliberately confusing, but its absolute confidence makes it all the more alluring and fascinating. Written and directed by Shane Carruth (who also produced, edited, composed the score, and acted), Primer runs a "B"-movie length of 77 minutes, but it's a dense 77 minutes. The dialogue sounds ultra-naturalistic, sounding like engineers and businessmen in meetings, and it's easy to miss something, although not everything spoken is essential, either. It's not a casual movie, and not for everybody, but highly rewarding.

There are no visual effects, no depictions of what it might look like to travel through time. In truth, there's quite a lot of time spent sitting around and waiting. Nevertheless, Carruth builds tingling suspense throughout, mainly because of the way Primer feels absolutely real, as if this stuff could actually happen, and because of the intriguing sense of the unknown. The organic, edgy sense of science at work -- Carruth studied mathematics, rather than filmmaking -- make it seem as if this is a movie that needs further study. And indeed, it does hold up to (and demands) multiple viewings, and each viewing brings a startling new revelation to light.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about Primer's depiction of violence. How did it make you feel? Is it meant to be exciting or shocking? How did the filmmakers achieve this?

  • Does the movie glamorize alcohol or drug use? Are there consequences for these things?

  • What would you do if you could travel in time, backward or forward, one day? Would you do something for yourself? Something for others?

  • How does the movie compare to other time-travel movies, in terms of storytelling, dialogue, action, visual effects, etc.?

  • How does greed affect the two main characters and their relationship?

Movie details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love science fiction

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