Groundhog Day is a great movie, one of the best films of the last twenty years, really. It hinges on an intriguing premise, that one day you wake up and tomorrow… is yesterday. It lends the protagonist total freedom, a chance to become absolutely anything. Life, like love, requires forward motion, and when you’re living the same day over and over again, well, you can find yourself in a dead shark situation pretty quickly.
The time loop is common in science fiction and fantasy, especially in literature, but there’s not many time loop stories of note in film. Below we’ve put together a few of our favorite celluloid time loops, tales of people trapped in a certain place in time, and without much clue how to get out of it.
Strap in, these are kind of nerdy.
Groundhog Day (1993, Harold Ramis)
Though it’s not the first story of a man trapped in time, Harold Ramis’s comic masterpiece, Groundhog Day, defines the genre. If it were just a funny movie, Groundhog Day wouldn’t be of much consequence; the trick to the movie is how it tackles the philosophical and spiritual quandaries that come with being a lone man stuck in time.
We all get ourselves into ruts, stretches in your life where you can feel trapped by your decisions and your lifestyle. Groundhog Day chronicles that struggle. Trapped in a day without end, a person can learn everything there is to know about anything, but it’s not until you turn your gaze inward that true progress can flourish. When your actions have no outside consequences, the only thing you can improve is yourself. I suppose you could also rob a bank.
Beautiful Dreamer (1984, Mamoru Oshii)
Before he directed Ghost in the Shell, anime auteur Mamoru Oshii was in charge of the television series Urusei Yatsura, a whimsical space-comedy about a bikini-clad alien princess who falls in love with a lecherous jerk from Earth. Being kind of a silly sex comedy, Urusei Yatsura doesn’t reflect the meditative, deliberate works that defined Oshii’s career, but with Beautiful Dreamer, the second UY film, you can see Oshii’s sensibilities come into focus.
Moving along like a slow stream, Oshii takes the large Urusei Yatsura cast and sets them adrift through time, living the day before the big school festival over-and-over again. At first, the gang doesn’t realize that the festival never seems to come, but as time goes on, the world around them literally begins to crumble, physically trapping them in town.
Things get complicated after that; the world takes on dreamlike qualities, and the group realizes that they’re trapped in the dream of one of their classmates. To escape, the group must figure out who among them is dreaming, and why that person would want to stay locked in time. It’s a sentimental story, one that dwells on nostalgia and love, and how we, as a people, simultaneously crave stability and progress.
Star Trek: The Next Generation; “Cause and Effect” (1992)
The Time Loop premise is much more common on television than it is in movies. This episode of Star Trek is pretty great because the Enterprise explodes something like four or five times — once before the start of the credits. Nice.
There’s a lot of great time conundrums throughout the various Star Trek series, but “Cause and Effect” might be the most fun.
The episode centers on the ship’s doctor, Beverly Crusher, as she makes her way through a seemingly normal day out in deep space. She plays some poker, she treats some patients, the ship explodes. She wakes up, she plays some poker, she treats some patients, the ship explodes. Between all of the poker playing and the dying, Dr. Crusher starts to experience deja-vu, while the rest of the crew keeps trucking on, unaware of their impending exploding.
The fun part of “Cause and Effect” is the slow way Dr. Crusher and the crew start to realize that they’re trapped in time; pieces of the puzzle start to come together, and just when they think they have it all figured out, boom, back to square one. Wake up, play some poker, treat some patients, explode.
12 Dates of Christmas (2011, James Hayman)
An ABC Family Groundhog Day knockoff with a yuletide twist. 12 Dates of Christmas features Amy Smart locked in a never-ending cycle of Christmas Eves, where she’s forced to go on the same bad date with Mark Paul Gosselaar over and over and over again. In the process, Smart learns to love her neighbors, treats people better and fa la la la la, blah blah blah blah.
12 Dates of Christmas is not a good movie, I watched it because I had the flu in the week leading up to Christmas, but it is fun to see them try to capture the Groundhog Day magic and fall flat every time. Smart starts to become a better person, she becomes best friends with her old lady neighbor, she helps a couple get married, she finds a dog. In the end they all go to a party and voila, Merry Christmas.
My favorite silly detail in the movie is how it keeps track of how many times Smart’s lived through Christmas: in day seven, seven swans swim by; in day nine, nine ladies in a conga line. It’s stupid, but in a greeting card from your grandmother sort of way.
Timecrimes (2007, Nacho Vigalondo)
More of a time spiral than a time loop, Timecrimes is a Spanish science fiction film that follows Hector, a man who continually travels back an hour in time attempting to fix his own mistakes. When traveling back in time only an hour, things can get complicated quickly, especially when you start interfering with your own recent history. Hector finds himself re-enacting the same events from different perspectives. Hector’s trips through time explains some of the horrifying and inexpiable events he encountered only an hour before. To escape the cycle, Hector must face both his past and future selves. Is it wrong to harm yourself? Is it even possible?
Post by Kris King, Hatched Editor for Nitehawk Cinema. @KrisKingTornado