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Sci-fi movie: Primer

The most confusing sci-fi movies explained

Not sure what you just saw? Don’t worry – these infographics, diagrams and videos might just reveal all

Written by
Guy Parsons

If fear’s your bag, watch a horror movie; if weeping’s your style, indulge in something romantic. But if you’d rather be left utterly bewildered, then science fiction is the genre for you. Manipulating the very fabric of space and time, these films can leave even the most attentive viewer scratching their head, so we’ve collected some expert interpretations of '2001: A Space Odyssey', 'Inception', 'Looper', 'Back to the Future', '12 Monkeys' and 'Primer'.

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One minute, our hero is unplugging a malovelent computer in a classic man-versus-machine standoff. But five minutes later, he’s been dragged through a technicolour lightshow, imprisioned in a mystery space hotel and transformed into a Giant Space Baby. No idea what it all meant? Sounds like a job for... the Internet!

Go back to 2001 - literally - with! explains the plot of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Considered rather cutting-edge internet design back in 2001, this retro Flash treat explains the plot of 2001: A Space Odyssey step-by-step - and delivers the nostalgic glow of dial-up internet days.

This YouTube explainer is a worthy alternative:

But a true sci-fi connoisseur will want to avail themselves of this 56 minute-long philosophical analysis:

And that’s just your standard, linear (albeit epoch/cosmos-spanning) trans-dimensional alien narrative. It can get a whole lot more complicated than this...

Christopher Nolan’s dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream thriller can be a bit of a nightmare to follow. So it’s just as well the internet has collectively dreamt up a shedload of stylish infographics to unpick the nested plotlines.

Why not start with a guided tour though

Inception Explained

Or perhaps this diagram clarifies things?

Inception infographic by Adam Martin showing dream layers.

View in full at

Or this poster?

A diagram explaining the movie Inception.

View in full at Shahed Syed's deviantart.

Or this poster?

A poster for the film 'Inception' showing the different dream layers.

View in full at Neil Laws on

This image lays out how the dream timelines correspond to one another...

A chart showing how dream timelines in Inception work.

From Luis Buenaventura's Flickr.

And as for the question: at the end, is Cobb dreaming or awake?

The top wobbles. And that's all we have to say about that. But to get more confusing... we're going to need to go back in time.

Back to the Future

Doc: You’re just not thinking fourth dimensionally!

Marty McFly: Right, right. I have a real problem with that.

Have a problem with that no longer with these terrific diagrams.

This timeline diagram lays it all out:

Back to the Future timeline diagram.

View in full on Mushir Hoda's deviantart.

As does this one:

Back to the Future Trilogy timeline by Sean Mort.

View in full here, created by Sean Mort.

And this one:

Back to the Future Trilogy timeline by Sean Mort.

View in full on mysticalpha's deviantart

'I don’t wanna talk about time travel shit', says Bruce Willis as Old Joe in 2002 time-travel noir 'Looper'. 'Cause if we start talking about it, then we’re gonna be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws.'

Oooh, did somebody say DIAGRAMS WITH STRAWS?


Looper film infographic.

View in full here. Image created by Michael Talley.

More straws!

Looper film infographic.

View the full straw-enhanced explanation at

Str... oh.

An infographic explaining the film Looper.

Still cool though. By Noah Illinsky for Wired.

I think I recognise this one from a recent meeting.

A flowchart showing the alternate timelines in the film Looper.

View in full here. Image created by AceFox.

This is it. The mother of all mindbenders. A film that, by virtue of its meagre $7,000 budget, elliptical time-travelling plot and remorseless economy of exposition has perhaps generated more discussion per dollar than any other sci-fi film out there. These timeline diagrams only begin to explain why...

You can only time-travel backwards to the point you turn the time-travel machine on.

A diagram showing how time travel works in the film Primer.

Diagram via Wikipedia.

Unless you take a time-travel machine back in time with you using the time-travel machine... Then it gets more complicated.

Showing how the failsafe boxes in Primer work.

View in full here. By Tyler Skrabek.

Quite a bit more complicated.

View in full size here. Created by Laura Ells.

No, more complicated than that.

View in full size here. Created by Keith Pearson.

The more you think about it...

View it full size here.

...the worse it gets.

View in full size here.

This one's just a hot mess.

View it in full size here.

Is this one right?

Annotated timeline of Shane Carruth's 'Primer'.

See in full here.

Or is it this one?

A timeline diagram of the film Primer by Shane Carruth.

See the enormous original here.

Actually, it might just be this one.

A funny take on the Primer timeline from XKCD.

via XKCD.

Still haven't got it? Perhaps this 15-minute explainer video will make things clear:

Or if you'd rather read a detailed explanation...

A quote around the multiple Aarons in the Primer timeline.

This handy article provides an incisive explanation of the film's events, but let's face it, you've read this far, you owe it to yourself to go deep. So turn to The Primer Universe for 27,000 words of painstaking analysis.

Just watch the whole thing again with this fan-made audio commentary!

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