The existential horror of the time-loop movie

Alex Clark 13 May 2021
Image credit: Sundance Film Festival

The release of Amazon Prime’s Palm Springs could not have come at a more appropriate time; the comparison between the infinite time loop premise – being forced to live the same day, on repeat, ad nauseum – and our own lives in lockdown was something most viewers and reviewers picked up on. However, the existential horror of the time loop film runs much deeper than the timeliness of Palm Springs’ release – it’s always been there, and I’ve never liked it. From Groundhog Day to Love Death + Robots, our own time loop has changed how I see these films and shows.

First let’s look at how the time loop started. Groundhog Day set the precedent for how time loop movies would work, with an essentially punitive loop at its core: Groundhog Day is a cosmic punishment for one man being a somewhat bad guy. Whether stated by the narrative or not, most films follow this idea – regardless of whether the loop is Edge of Tomorrow’s accident or more in line with Happy Death Day, the film can only end once the protagonist has “grown” how the plot demands they do. The intention in most of these films is clearly that the audience agree with the punishment – of course Bill Murray’s increasingly desperate pleas to escape are funny, he couldn’t remember that guy’s name! – but having been trapped in our own loop, I’m sure more people will sympathise with our time loop victim. After all, the requirements for the endless isolation, torture and deaths of a time loop seem pretty low when ‘just existing’ has put us in ours.

At least lockdown offered the chance of progress – the complete detachment our protagonist faces is one of the loop’s most terrifying aspects. Being collectively forced to stay inside, if time wasted, was at least a common experience; but in a time loop, there is the complete separation of being the only one aware. The protagonist is completely socially isolated, unable to build shared experience or let others know of their situation without weeks of preparation – not only are you trapped, but even if there are others around you, you are completely alone. Now, there’s an increasing trend of having two protagonists within the loop. Palm Springs offers a companion, whilst Love, Death + Robots and Two Distant Strangers have the time loop serve as a perpetual shared cycle of violence, where the former’s two protagonists unwittingly murder each other continually, and the latter’s protagonist discovers he’s being deliberately killed each loop. It’s a highly flexible metaphor, as Patrick Willems has noted , and can stand in for real world violence, depression, a mid-life crisis or any other cyclical action. However, the fact that in Palm Springs, the protagonists face each day – albeit the same one – having experienced the previous ones together, makes it feel that bit closer to our own experiences locked down.

In another way, I don’t know what is more terrifying – the idea that the loop is infinite, or that it could end at any moment. In Edge of Tomorrow – or Live Die Repeat or whatever they’ve decided to call it this week – Tom Cruise’s William Cage’s ability to loop time is tied to his blood, meaning he could, and eventually does, lose his ability to loop. Whilst this might be an easy escape for some, the alternative implication that any of your deaths within a loop might be your final one adds another level of horror to the situation. Not only are you trapped, isolated and having to “learn your lesson”, but at any moment you could still die, placing you in never-ending existential despair. Alternatively, if the loop is infinite – often the case in shorter-form media like Love, Death + Robots’ ‘The Witness’, Two Distant Strangers or even Bob Dylan’s track ‘All Along the Watchtower’ – your suffering is never ending, with no possibility for escape in sight. If the two most existentially horrific moments of a time loop film are the initial realisation and the ennui and acceptance, then these infinite loops are a choice between forever realising your situation before the loop resets, or eternally giving in to the futility of your actions. At least Two Distant Strangers offers a way out of the loop – by making the parallel to real-world police racial violence explicit, the film calls on the viewer to break the loop themselves, both by turning off the film and by breaking the real-life cycle it represents. Our protagonist is only as trapped as we allow him to be – the film ultimately offers “some way outta here”.

Maybe the most apt part of Palm Springs’ release is that it’s coming out now, not midway through lockdown as it did in the States. Now, finally, we seem to be moving on from the time loop – even if we haven’t mastered everything or learned our cosmic lesson. Because that’s the ultimate catharsis of a time loop movie – the fact that in the end, life will carry on, days will have meaning again, and the next day will be different. At the very least, I’m glad the snowstorm is subsiding, and we’ll finally be able to leave Punxsutawney. Unless there’s a sequel.