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The unending appeal of time loops

Contributed by
Aug 10, 2020, 3:00 PM EDT

For most of us, it began with an alarm clock. The old fashioned, mechanical numbers flipped down to 6 a.m., and the familiar beats of Sonny and Cher's "I Got You Babe" rang out. It was Groundhog Day, again, and Bill Murray's Phil Conners was about to begin reliving the worst day of his life over and over again. Groundhog Day didn't invent its concept, but the comedy manages to occupy an almost impossible intersection of dark, silly, and genuinely heartfelt, and as such has stood as the defining example of the time-loop genre for almost 20 years.

The trope is simple enough: A character or multiple characters experience the same period of time on a loop, with their interactions within it being the only element of change. And though Groundhog Day's shadow loomed large over the '90s, the mid-2000s and onward allowed for a veritable explosion of new takes on it. From the underrated Emily Blunt (and Tom Cruise, but mostly we're here for Emily Blunt) vehicle Edge of Tomorrow (aka Live. Die. Repeat.), the Happy Death Day horror franchise, the popular Netflix comedy series Russian Doll, and the newest entry, Hulu's Palm Springs, the "It's like Groundhog Day but…" genre has been booming.

Warning: The following may contain spoilers for Palm Springs.

Cristin Milioti and Andy Samberg in Palm Springs / Courtesy of Sundance Institute

What is it about the time loop trope that draws us in? It certainly feels like it has an extra dose of relevance currently, with many folks working from home while trying to retain any awareness of the difference between days. Palm Springs especially has benefited from a timeliness the filmmakers had never intentioned. The film eerily predicted the behavioral patterns we're seeing within our real-life national time loop. Andy Samberg's character is adrift without an anchor; Cristin Miliotti dives into workhorse mode, teaching herself complicated quantum physics in the booth of a diner; J.K. Simmons devolves into abject primal cruelty, admitting he hadn't even considered the way his actions affected the others.

But outside of a stay-at-home crisis, time loops have gained traction in their appeal due to the same themes that made Groundhog Day so popular to begin with. Like the drunken locals that Phil Conners laments to in Punxsutawney, or the fellow wedding guest in the Palm Springs hotel pool talking to Samberg's Nyles, those existing outside the loop can relate on a visceral level to the experience of feeling like today is the same as yesterday and tomorrow. For Bill Murray, the appeal of Groundhog Day as a script was its representation of people's fear of change, and how we choose to repeat our daily lives to avoid it. These themes echoed in Russian Doll, which as a bingeable streaming series really allowed audiences to inhabit the repetitive nature of the loops, ironically utilizing the same technologies that have sped our lives up and caused them to feel even more cyclical.

Credit: CBS

But these themes are not the universal notes behind all time-loop stories. The first season of Star Trek: Discovery made excellent use of the trope in the episode "Magic to Make the Sanest Man Mad" as a tool for villainous Harry Mudd's schemes, and in which the crew members repeatedly attempt to prevent the destruction of the ship. Similarly, the "Eleventh Hour" arc of the actual-play RPG podcast The Adventure Zone features a time loop in which the characters must try to stop the destruction of a rural town. Stories like this, often using much shorter time loops to up the stakes with a ticking clock, magnify one of the other key relatable themes of the trope, repeating events over and over until one can get them right.

The appeal for this "getting it right" element to time loops is fairly universal. Who among us hasn't replayed a past mistake or fumbled social encounter over and over in our heads, imagining all the ways that we could have done it better? The time-loop premise offers us a wish-fulfillment fantasy, giving us the most literal representation of that experience possible. In a "be careful what you wish for" lesson in morality though, often it's the characters' attempts to stop a thing from happening that leads to much more catastrophic results. The lesson perhaps being that obsessing over a past event is ultimately destructive and the goal should be to move on.

These two themes are not completely independent of each other. In seemingly lower-stakes stories, the thing that the characters might be most actively trying to fix is their own lives. In the real world, those of us who live repetitious loops from day to day likely don't do so out of a sense that we've got everything exactly how we like it — rather, we do it thinking that, if we just stick with our grind, one day it will probably all pay off.

Credit: Warner Bros.

The simple beauty of a time-loop story is that when presented with a world where everything is ultimately static, the only element of true change must come from the characters themselves. According to Groundhog Day screenwriter Danny Rubin, what starts as the worst day of Phil's life ends up as the best day, based entirely on how he personally changes and how that affects the way he experiences the world. Similarly, in Edge of Tomorrow, while there is a very real alien threat, Tom Cruise's character has moved from being a coward trying to escape conflict to rushing into danger, sacrificing himself to save the world, even after he's been freed from the time loop.

Between the relatability, the darkened wish fulfillment, and the intense zeroing in on character development, all combined with the inherent entertainment value of a well managed time-loop story, it's easy to see why time loops moved out of being a seldom-used premise from a handful of specific sources into a full-on subgenre of its own. It's a near-certainty that we'll continue to see more and more of these stories as time moves forward. Or doesn't.

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