Primer is a great sci-fi story, but also happens to be one of the most confusing time travel movies ever made. While plenty of detailed articles exist explaining Primer, many of them can be extremely complex and serve only to confound the reader further. The following explanation is intended to clear up some of the confusion and help you make general sense of the movie.
Timeline of Primer
1: Inventors Aaron and Abe try to develop technology capable of making the mass of objects lighter by blocking gravity, but instead inadvertently invent a time machine.
2: Abe then builds a time machine big enough to hold a human being, and successfully proves time travel exists by going back to earlier that day. However, a person can only travel backward in time as far as when the machine was activated, and one must stay inside the machine for the length of time one wishes to travel to the past, thus placing a limit on the amount of time traveling you can do.
3: In secret, Abe also construct a “failsafe” machine which in the event of something going seriously wrong he could use to reset the timeline. The “failsafe” basically allows him to travel back to a time before he discussed the subject of time travel with Aaron. Abe would then be able to sabotage the machine as many times as necessary to get Abe and Aaron to abandon their time travel efforts.
4: Over the next couple of days, Aaron and Abe travel back in time and make money investing in stocks. There is also an unfortunate incident at a party in which a shooting occurs, and Thomas Granger (Abe’s girlfriend’s father) apparently finds and uses the time machine, but becomes sick and ends up in coma. (A possible explanation could involve Granger traveling back to stop his daughter being shot by her ex-boyfriend at the party)
5: Realizing the dangers of time travel, Abe decides to use the “fail-safe” time machine and after traveling four days in the past he meets Aaron, and collapses. In a twist, Abe then discovers that his fail-safe did not seem to work and that the Aaron he meets is actually an Aaron from the future.
6: It turns out that Aaron knew about Abe’s failsafe box, and used it to take another foldable time machine back and create a “near-failsafe” point farther back than Abe’s, whilst creating a “false-failsafe” point” for Abe’s time box. (Aaron wanted to keep using the machine).
7: Aaron has used this twice in an attempt to set right the incident at the party, which he feels he indirectly caused. The problem with going back in time to “fix” things, though, is that the original copy of themselves are walking around in that timeline. To resolve that problem, whenever Abe or Aaron independently travel back to change events, they drug and render the earlier versions of themselves unconscious, before hiding them out of the way while they complete their task.
8: In the end there turns out to be 3 Aarons (2 Abes) in this universe, the timeline of which involves the original Aaron1 being drugged by a future Aaron2, who then stowed him in the attic before Aaron2 is himself later drugged by Aaron3 who, like Aaron2, had also traveled back through time. Furthermore, Aaron uses a tape recorder to record all his conversations, and with his earpiece is able to keep his interactions in the past virtually identical, whilst only influencing those things he wants to change.
9: Eventually, Abe2 and Aaron3 team up to fix the problem at the party, after which they part in anger and in effect are enemies. Abe2 then destroys the time machine, so that it can never be used by Aaron1 and Abe1 to time travel, and experience its realities. However, Aaron2, the film’s narrator, feels guilty about having locked Aaron1 in the attic and phones him to relate the experiences of himself (Aaron2) and Aarons3.
10: The movie ends with Abe2 warning off Aaron3 at the airport, and a scene in which Aaron3 is inside a huge hangar in another country, perhaps there to build a larger version of the time machine for an extended stay. Alternatively, it could be Aaron1 having been filled in with the details of time travel by Aaron2.