Stephen Arnell

Eat. Sleep. Repeat: 10 films that play with time

Eat. Sleep. Repeat: 10 films that play with time
Palm Springs, Image: Shutterstock
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Over the recent long months of lockdown, many may feel that they are stuck in their own personal Groundhog Day. With working from home and the few opportunities for travel or socialising, life, for some, has become a matter of dull routine.

It's somewhat of a surprise, then, that the well-worn genre of the time loop movie, where protagonists are doomed to live one single day time after time, is striking a chord. Recent comedy Palm Springs has had plenty of attention from critics, perhaps because it resonates so strongly with our lockdown experience. On the face of it, this genre is a recipe for monotonous viewing, but it is to the credit of filmmakers that many have played out the concept in ingenious ways.

TV has also utilised the time loop concept, most recently in Netflix’s excellent Russian Doll (2019), where Harry Nilsson’s ‘Gotta Get Up’ is appropriately used to ear-worm effect.

Of course, the grandaddy of time loop pictures is Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day (1993), where Bill Murray’s selfish TV weatherman is condemned to relive the titular day in Punxsutawney (Pennsylvania), where Phil the woodchuck prognosticates each February 2nd on how long winter will continue.

The movie is surprisingly dark in places, due in part to the famously ill-tempered clashes between Murray and director Harold Ramis. Murray wanted to up the philosophical aspects of the story, whilst Ramis preferred to stick to comedy. Possibly this creative tension benefited the film, as the melancholy parts work to give the comedy more bite than if they were absent.

Despite Groundhog Day’s success, the fallout from the experience meant that the former friends did not talk to each other for 21 years – only reconciling just before Ramis’ sad death from autoimmune inflammatory vasculitis in 2014.

Along with Groundhog Day, here are nine movies to watch – again and again…and again.

Boss Level (2021)

Shades of Edge of Tomorrow (featured later) in Joe (The Grey) Carnahan’s apocalyptic time loop thriller with Frank Grillo as retired special forces soldier Roy Pulver, who is trapped in a spectacularly awful day.

This is all linked to something called the Osiris Spindle, a ‘quantum device’ in the hands of would-be World King Colonel Ventor, played by Mel Gibson, who after Machete Kills (2013) and Expendables III (2014) must be getting used to playing OTT baddies in these kinds of thick-ear action films.

The picture attracted a strong supporting cast (including Naomi Watts, Michelle Yeoh and Ken Jeong) and reviews were fair-to-middling, so maybe I’m doing Boss Level a disservice, it’s certainly not a bad way to kill 90 minutes or so.

Palm Springs (2020) – Amazon Prime

In a world without Covid, the critically lauded comedy Palm Springs could have been a contender for Groundhog Day-style box office success. The genial Andy Samberg plays Nyles, trapped by a cave vortex (?) to spend the rest of his life at the wedding day of friends Tala and Abe. 

Enter Cristin Milioti (The Wolf of Wall Street) as the bride’s sister Sarah, who Nyles inadvertently ensnares in the loop. And, more worryingly, another trapee, the homicidal Roy Schlieffen, who blames Nyles for his plight, played by the great JK Simmons in full vein-popping Whiplash mode. As with Groundhog Day, Palm Springs doesn’t neglect the darker aspects of the premise, taking a step further in actively embracing the possibilities offered by the loop.

The Fare (2019)

This low budget noirish thriller blends the time loop trope with Greek myths, earning some excellent reviews in the process. Taxi driver Harris (Gino Anthony Pesiis) is assigned by his dispatcher to pick up a fare called Penny (Brinna Kelly); a trip that replays throughout much of the movie until the final reveal (spoiler alert).

Harris is in fact the Ferryman to the Underworld, a punishment meted out to him by Hades for the affair with his wife Persephone (Penny).

Krampus (2015) – Netflix, Amazon Rent/Buy

This seasonal comedy-horror keeps the time loop element back until the final scenes of the picture. For the apparent mortal sin of not cherishing the Christmas spirit, the otherwise blameless Engel family are tormented by the murderous Krampus – the ‘anti-Santa’ of Austrian folklore.

Krampus is accompanied by a posse of sadistic elves, gingerbread men, and a demonic Jack-in-the-box.

Tonally, Krampus is all over the place, veering from family comedy in one moment to gruesome horror the next, but is still a fun watch.

The ending is a kicker though, just as we think the Engels have come through their ordeal unscathed, it is revealed that they are confined to a snow globe, living Christmas Day over and over again.

Edge of Tomorrow (2014) – Amazon Prime, Rent/Buy

Some viewers may relish the prospect of a movie where Tom Cruise is repeatedly killed, but even non-fans may be won over by his performance in this alien invasion tale, where the actor undermines his usual smug persona with great success.

Narcissistic US army PR man William Cage (Cruise) is thrown in the deep end after being demoted and put in the meat grinder of an allied landing force in alien occupied territory. An explosion and the resulting generous helping of extra-terrestrial goo result in Cruise living the same harrowing day on a loop. After multiple deaths, Cruise is eventually aided by fellow loopee Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), honing his previously non-existent fighting skills until he becomes a uber-warrior, ready to take the fight to the enemy.

A sequel is apparently in the works. Hopefully they will go back to the more apt original graphic novel title of Live Die Repeat, rather the generic one chosen for the first picture.

Looper (2012) – Amazon Rent/Buy

Rian (Knives Out) Johnson’s Looper has a fair few admirers, but I find myself distracted by the fake nose Joseph Gordon-Levitt wears as the younger version of Bruce Willis’s hitman Old Joe.

That being said, the conceit of the movie – an assassin is hired to kill his future self and close the time loop (whatever that means) is an interesting one, but I eventually got bogged down by the mechanics of the plot.

The picture has other compensations; Willis delivers a more committed performance than usual, the visuals and action are well staged, whilst the usually amiable Jeff Daniels is good value as gang boss Abe, a dry run of sorts for his bad guy Frank Griffin in the Netflix series Godless (2017).

Source Code (2011) – Amazon Prime, Rent/Buy

Duncan Jones followed up his cult hit Moon (2009) with this high concept thriller, where Jake Gyllenhaal plays US army captain Colter Stevens on a mission to find out the identity of a bomber via a computerised recreation of the victims’ memories from an earlier attack. Revelations about both the capabilities of the machine and Stevens’ physical state further complicate matters. 

Source Code is an enjoyable enough thriller but takes itself a little too seriously for my liking. Scott Bakula has a voice-only cameo as Colter’s father in what is presumably a nod to the actor’s role as Dr. Samuel "Sam" Beckett in TV’s Quantum Leap (NBC, 1989-1993).

Triangle (2009) – Amazon Prime, My5, and FilmRise

An uneasy feeling of dread pervades Triangle, a movie akin to The Fare in that the time loop is a punishment for past misdeeds; namely the abuse that Jess (Melissa George) heaped on her autistic son Tommy.

When she joins her friends on a boating trip off the Florida coast, a storm capsizes the group, who make it to a passing ocean liner, one which, Marie Celeste-like, is devoid of crew and passengers.

The picture delivers some decent shocks and very capably directed by Christopher Smith, who also helmed the effective thrillers Creep(2004), Severance (2006) and Black Death (2011), as well as Get Santa (2014), which represented something of a change of pace for him.

Run Lola Run (1998) – Amazon Rent/Buy

Tom Tykwer’s (Babylon Berlin) kinetic thriller was a smash hit in his native Germany and performed well across the globe.

The movie speculates about three different outcomes in a scenario where Lola (Franka Potente – the first two Bourne pictures) has twenty minutes to obtain 100,000 Deutschmarks to save the life of her lowlife boyfriend Manni (Moritz Bleibtreu – the clumsy scientist who memorably accidentally shot himself in World War Z).

Free will, determinism, the butterfly effect, and chaos theory all enter the mix, but thankfully not to an off-putting degree.

Run Lola Run makes great use of its Berlin locations, which in 1998 was still recognisably the city of two halves that existed before reunification in 1990.