Greer Valaquenta analyzes the subgenre of time-loop films, and what we can learn from them
Time is one of the human-made constructs that influences our daily lives, no matter who we are, or where we live. Scarcely does a day go by without us making plans for our future or worrying about our past. Everywhere we go, we are surrounded by mechanisms which mark the minutes as they trickle past, whether it’s sand through an hourglass, the clock on our wall, or the smartphone in our pocket. We have become slaves to time, to the dreaded corporate 9-5, wanting an extra ten minutes in bed, feeling the distress of birthdays which mark our own body’s aging. We worry about what may happen, what has happened, what is happening. Wise men and women tell us we must live in the present to achieve complete bliss, yet for the normal human, this is nearly impossible. We may achieve a brief harmony of self during a period of relaxation, but how long does it last until the thought of an upcoming deadline arises? We constantly fear the repercussions of our actions and convince ourselves that our dreams and desires are too risky to be attempted, whether or not this is actually true. Evolution has taught us how to keep ourselves alive and run from danger. Yet too often this causes us to run from ourselves and our deepest wishes. In this article, I want to examine several films that explore the concept of living for today, because there is no such thing as tomorrow, and how we can apply their message to our own lives.
Through film, we have the rare opportunity to delve into the abstraction of time, and to ask ourselves what time means to us, physically and philosophically. The plot of the iconic movie Groundhog Day (1993) investigates exactly this. Should anyone be unfamiliar with the events depicted in the film, it is essentially a story of how one pessimistic weatherman, Phil, is made to repeat a single day over and over. This world-weary man has been sent (or, in his view, sentenced) to cover the action of the annual Groundhog Day celebrations in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. A winter storm forces him to stay there overnight, and he awakes to the rudely cheery radio blasting Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe”. A whole series of events unfolds, with Phil being rude and standoffish to everyone from the innkeeper to his sister’s old boyfriend. We learn that Phil, for some inexplicable and unexplained reason, is stuck in a perpetual time loop with no way out. At first, he is baffled and bewildered, as we all would be. Over the course of the film, we see Phil go from one extreme of living to another, as he struggles to find meaning in his repetitive life. He exploits the loop by seducing women, using personal knowledge he gains over the course of many recurring days, abusing alcohol, getting involved in a police chase, and trying to kill himself. Everything slowly begins to become meaningless to him, as he realises that no matter what, he cannot escape what he views as his living nightmare. It is the romantic subplot between Phil and his colleague that brings us to our topic of discussion, for what is it that pulls Phil out of his downward spiral? Only his pursuit of the lovely Rita. As he begins to spend more time with his co-worker, he realises how much he missed due to his own self-absorbed lifestyle, as he learns about her life instead. It is when Phil begins to actively live in the moment that he escapes his prison of time. What, then, is the spiritual message of “Groundhog Day”, hidden underneath the guise of romantic-comedy? Dr Angela Zito, co-director of NYU’s Center for Religion and Media, said in an interview with the New York Times that the film illustrates the Buddhist concept of samsara, or continuing rebirth. Only when Phil begins to live his life in a positive way is he released from his karmic cycle. Another view of the film, from a Western religious perspective, is that Phil is stuck in purgatory, unable to continue on until he purifies his soul.
The concept of purgatory is explored in Palm Springs (2020), which is (spoiler alert!) a film with a storyline very similar to Groundhog Day in that it is about a man who is stuck in a perpetual time loop. Where it differs is that the day in question is a very special day, a wedding. The main character, Nyles, is seemingly everything Phil is in Groundhog Day - pessimistic and world weary. However, in this film, rather than experiencing the loop alone, Nyles is joined in his suffering by another wedding guest. Sarah becomes trapped with him after following him into a mysterious glowing cave and goes off the rails in her disbelief of her new circumstances. The plot has similar motifs to Groundhog Day, such as Sarah trying to leave the time loop by ending her life, which Nyles tells her will not work, as he has tried everything and now accepts his fate. We are never told exactly how long Nyles has been trapped, how many iterations of this wedding party he has been to. Where this film differs from Groundhog Day most is that it is Sarah, the secondary character, who uses her time wisely, for example, learning physics in order to better understand the time loop. Sarah is the one who gets them both out of it in the end. Throughout the film, both Sarah and Nyles are forced to confront their previous wrongdoings and misdeeds, and curiously, it is after they fix these mistakes that they are freed from their loop. They begin to live for today, after healing the wounds of the past, and the future means endless opportunity to them, rather than something to be feared.
Another film that plays with the concept of a perpetual loop is Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016). The plot centres around children with magical talents who are hidden away in a children’s home on a remote Welsh island (sounds reasonable enough). However, as we soon discover, not only are they hidden away in a remote locale, but they are also perpetually repeating a single day, September 3, 1940. Every day, they repeat the same set of events, following a rigidly managed schedule under the watchful eye of their guardian, only to have their loop reset just before the Luftwaffe bombs their home. In contrast to the previous films I have discussed, rather than trying to change the outcome of their day every time it resets, the peculiar children simply accept their fate and the guidance of their guardian, who tells them they must remain in the loop to be safe. The arrival of Jake, a boy with familial ties to the children’s home, upsets the status quo. The children realise the uncomfortable truth that while they have remained in permanent childhood or adolescence, a former friend had chosen to leave, grew up, had children, and Jake is his grandson. This Peter Pan-esque narrative serves a purpose: although we may fear growing older, making mistakes, messing up… this is all a part of personal growth. Without change and growth, we are stunted, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
Lack of change and growth is also present in the plot of 50 First Dates (2004), about a woman, Lucy, who lost her short-term memory in a car accident on her father’s birthday, leaving her unable to remember events longer than a day. She falls asleep and her memory of the past 24 hours is wiped from her mind, leaving her to repeat the day again in the morning. This plot is like a reversed Groundhog Day, as Lucy is not actually repeating the same day, the world is moving on around her, although her close friends and family pretend nothing has changed so she escapes the heartbreak of the accident and does not realise how much she has lost. She is perfectly happy in her own world, content in her ignorance of her circumstances. She meets Henry, a cynical, womanising veterinarian, at a café she goes to eat breakfast at every day. Henry tries to ask her out, yet when they meet again, she does not remember him. He is told of her disability and it becomes his mission to make her fall in love with him all over again every single day. Unlike the other films, there is no resolution to this infinite loop. Lucy still forgets about her day and, consequently, Henry’s existence, when she falls asleep. In the final scenes, we see Henry loves her so much that he creates home movies of their life together, including their children, so that when she awakes she can relearn all the beautiful memories her brain has erased overnight. Although Lucy’s body is aging, her mind is not. Every day is a chance for her to live in the moment and enjoy her life for that day, to bask in the love of her family and know she is secure in their love. Although Lucy is technically living in the past, we could argue she is more present than most of us.
Through my research for this article, I encountered multiple different beliefs about the meanings of these films, yet I believe that the most important thing we can take away from them is that we must indeed learn to live in the moment. That is what these tropes of temporality in flux are meant to teach us. How often do we stop ourselves from doing something due to our fear that it will fail? “I would have” and “I should have” are phrases we say and hear all too often. We should take more chances in life, perhaps not to the extremes illustrated in “Groundhog Day”, but at least try to live our lives with confidence in ourselves and our abilities. Speak to people you did not have the courage to before, go places you only dreamed of going, learn what you are interested in, if you can. In short, humans have a finite lifespan, so spend it wisely. Worry less about what could happen, focus on how you want to improve your life and yourself. Work hard, play hard. If we fail, it hurts, but we learn from it and move on. Perhaps then, there is no such thing as failure, only growth. Every single morning is a chance for our own samsara, our own rebirth. Make every moment count. I leave you with one of my favourite poems, written by an unknown hand on a wall at Friar Park, George Harrison’s former abode: