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The Joy of Watching Time Loop Movies

It’s taken me much longer to realise than perhaps it should have, but now I know: I’m addicted to time loop movies. Not time travel movies–though I love those too–but specifically time loop movies. And, yes: I realise that all time travel movies are time loop movies to some extent. That’s the whole premise of time travel: Looping around some anchoring point, whether that happens to be in ‘the future’ or in ‘the past’ relative to whenever the starting point may be. But that’s all academic. You know the films I’m talking about when I say ‘time loop movies’. They’re the ones featuring our protagonist stuck–very much involuntarily–in an endlessly repeating day, week, or some other length of mystical prison.

There were a few time loop movies made before Groundhog Day, most notably from Japan and the Soviet Union, but in many ways the 1993 Harold Ramis/Bill Murray film serves as ground zero for the mini-genre. Or at least as the by-far-most-used reference point–certainly in our anglo-centric world anyway. That’s for good reason. Not only was Groundhog Day one of the first time-loop movies, but it still probably remains the best. A few wonky ethical issues about Bill Murray’s character’s loop-assisted wooing of Andie McDowell’s character aside, it is a near-perfect movie: Hilarious, clever, and with just the right amount of heart.

But it’s odd: When I was thinking about how much I love time loop movies, I was sure that there must be plenty of examples rattling around in my mind. A healthy trail of gateway drugs that led me to this place in which the merest uttering of the words ‘stuck in a time a loop’ have me sit up straight and lick my lips in anticipation. But then I sat down and listed those films that I’ve seen that actually count as time loop stories, and all I got was a grand total of six (maybe seven, depending on how flexible the rules are). When I think of another mini-genre I adore–something like neo-noir–I can rattle off way more. Even time travel movies are easier to list. Yet time loop films stick in my mind a lot more. They have an impact disproportionately powerful compared to their number.

That impact became apparent recently when I rewatched last year’s Palm Springs. I saw the film originally only a few months ago. I don’t usually go back for a rewatch of something that soon after initially seeing it. Yet I found myself feeling a powerful itch. An itch that needed to be scratched. It wasn’t that the film–good as it is–was such a masterpiece that it demanded to be experienced again. I just needed a time loop fix, and Palm Springs was fresh in my mind.

Palm Springs was directed by Max Barbakow, written by Andy Siara, and stars Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti. Like Groundhog Day, it’s a romantic comedy set within a time loop. In Groundhog Day, it is famously Bill Murray’s misanthropic weatherman Phil Connors who gets stuck in a time loop while on an assignment in Punxsutawney to report on the town’s famous groundhog-based meteorological celebration. Every day he wakes up and it is the same day as it was before. He has knowledge of the previous loop, but nobody else does. If he dies, he just wakes up alive the same way again. Connors journeys through every possible emotional reaction to his predicament, from bewilderment to despair to flippancy to resignation, eventually finding a sort of peace and a source of altruism and empathy. In Palm Springs, Cristin Milioti’s character, Sarah, gets stuck in a time loop in the titular town during her sister’s wedding, after following Andy Samberg’s Niles into a strange, glowing cave out in the desert. The fun thing about Palm Springs is that we meet Samberg’s character first, and it quickly becomes apparent that he is already stuck in the loop, and has been for a significant amount of time, with Milioti’s character joining him shortly after the film begins. As a result, we get to experience not only Niles’ mastery of the moving elements of the day, but also Sarah’s discovery of her situation both through our eyes as well as Niles’.

At various points, the characters in Palm Springs assume that by becoming better people or otherwise somehow rebalancing the cosmic karmic scales they will set themselves free from their looping prison. Niles thought about it before discarding the idea some unspecified amount of time prior to us meeting him; Sarah, in her newly time loop-bound state, also concludes (temporarily) that it must be the way out. That is the implied mechanism by which the time loop system works in Groundhog Day after all, so it might work here too (which raises the fun possibility that though nobody actually mentions the name, Sarah and Niles’ theory may well have come from that film, which would mean that Bill Murray and Groundhog Day exist in their universe). What actually ends up liberating the pair is their finding of each other, and the discovery and acceptance of their love and need for the other person–along with a healthy dose of self-knowledge. Whatever cosmic principle governs these time loops sure has a soft spot for rom-com cliché.

As I said before, Palm Springs isn’t a masterpiece of a film by any means, but it is damn good fun. Sprightly, good natured, and occasionally laugh out loud funny, it’s also anchored by Samberg and (especially) Milioti’s excellent performances. Niles is an old veteran at the time loop game by the time we meet him, and as the movie progresses, in an interesting turn we find out it’s become a sort of comfort blanket to him, so much so that when a potential chance to leave the loop presents itself, he’s reluctant, like someone stuck in an undemanding job they initially hated but grew to be fond of contemplating the jump to a more rewarding but challenging role. It helps of course that at this point in their shared loop, Niles has fallen head over heels for Sarah. Milioti on the other hand is single-minded in her almost ceaseless drive to find a way to bust through the mystical bars that bind her, even while (somewhat reluctantly) acknowledging her feelings for Niles. It was on my second viewing of Palm Springs I realised how much I love watching time loop films, not just because of the never boring spectacle of watching a character figure out just exactly what is happening to them–as well as seeing how they will exploit their new situation materially–but also the emotional journey that they go on as a result, and the philosophical implications thereof.

Happy Death Day (2017) and its sequel, Happy Death Day 2U (2019) are horror-comedy twists on the time-loop format. In them, a college student named Tree (Jessica Rothe) becomes stuck in a time loop on the day that always ends with her getting murdered by a masked assailant. Tree’s task is to navigate the assault course that is her death day, and to puzzle out who on her college campus might want her dead enough to keep murdering her across multiple time loops. Along the way, she–of course–learns to be a better person, becoming more open, kind, and beginning to deal with a bereavement. Both films are lightweight and don’t take themselves too seriously, yet are perfectly entertaining, especially the first. They are also the films that made me notice something that I couldn’t believe I never did before: That all time loop movies (or at least all that I’ve seen) are, to a greater or lesser extent, comedies.

The Happy Death Day films are horror-comedies. Groundhog Day and Palm Springs cover the romantic comedy side of things. Then we have Doug Liman’s Tom Cruise- and Emily Blunt-starring sci-fi actioner Edge of Tomorrow (2014), which presents to us a planet Earth teetering on the brink of destruction at the hands of an invasive, time-controlling alien species. The whole world is at war with these deadly critters, and we are rapidly losing. After being covered in alien blood and acquiring some of their time travel powers, Cruise’s cowardly soldier, William Cage, turns into humanity’s last hope. There is a fair amount of peril in The Edge of Tomorrow, and the dramatic stakes are high, but still the film mines a great amount of humour out of Cruise’s endless cycle of botched attempts at heroism and the many, many, brutal, inevitable deaths that result (naturally, during this apocalyptic struggle, Tom Cruise’s character also grows as a person, becoming braver and learning the value of self-sacrifice).

Duncan Jones’s 2011 mystery thriller Source Code (and follow-up to the spectacular Moon) is not really a time loop film, but it plays with the mechanics and the tropes of the mini-genre. Though it is mostly focused on the drama of the predicament Jake Gyllenhaal’s soldier finds himself in, it also mines the comedic potential of being trapped in a loop that only you are aware of. The main exception to the comedy time loop rule that I can think of is (spoiler) 2017’s The Endless, which uses a time loop structure to explore the main characters’ trauma in a much more sombre, existentialist horror-drama sort of way.

It’s easy to see how a character trapped in a time loop provides a rich vein of comedic material to draw on. The confusion, the potential for mischief, the repetition of scenarios with slightly different outcomes based on the character’s mood–it’s all there. I wouldn’t be nearly as hooked on the premise as I am, however, without the emotional grounding that not only makes the jokes work, but also provides a compelling thought experiment: What would it be like to be stuck in a time loop? On the face of it, the situation might seem like a nightmare, yet time loop movies also present a truly scintillating version of reality: One in which we have the power to right our mistakes. More so, in fact: The power to prevent them from technically ever happening in the first place–and with the added bonus of still learning from them despite that erasure. They toy with the idea of the possibility of carving out an optimal path. In real life, of course, there are a billion possible ‘optimal’ paths–so many in fact, and so many ‘worst case’ paths, that both terms and values lose meaning, and we cannot ever know which one the one we take is. It is a baffling, irreducible mess, and we are all stumbling around in the dark within it. But in time loop movies, the intimidating, ineffable complexity of life is reduced down to something ultimately learnable, graspable, conquerable. The idea can seem intoxicating.

Of course, in the end, it’s the limitations that end up defining the experience. Time loop films throw characters into a situation in which they simultaneously have zero agency, and yet also supreme agency. In Palm Springs, Niles has already been trapped in his time loop for god knows how long at the start of the film. Through his endless experimentation with the possibilities of his universe, he knows everyone, everything, and is intimately familiar with the causal web he finds himself in. He has something akin to ultimate agency. Near omniscience. Yet, it is also, ultimately, an incredibly limited agency. He is the god of a Lego set strewn on the floor of a living room. Most revealingly, Niles is aware of this caveat, and still in some ways he grows attached to his comfortable prison. When Sarah asks him to go along with her potential escape plan, he hesitates. He does so because in many ways he has found a little nook in which he can be safe from the terrifying void of complexity that exists outside of the time loop. In the end (spoilers), his love for Sarah gives him the courage to take the leap. He chooses the unknown over the familiar. But the possibility that life might be better in this reduced facsimile was there for a while.

To me, time loop movies explore something very primal and fundamental about the human condition. They shine a light on how tragicomic much of our existence is. How we can refuse to learn from mistakes despite being burned over and over again. In almost all time loop movies, change does not come easy. Wisdom and self-knowledge can occasionally take what would count as multiple lifetimes outside of their loops to arrive. And yet, despite that, they show that these things do arrive if you strive for them and you let yourself be open to change–and that they’re always worth striving for. Buddhism teaches that the one constant in the universe is change. It’s funny how the species that managed to put words to that thought is the one that puts so much energy into struggling against it.

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Petr has come to peace with the imminent fall of civilization. He thinks that as long as dogs, beer, and the Before Sunrise movies survive, then maybe it all wouldn't have been for nothing.

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