Ending Explained is a recurring series in which we explore the finales, secrets, and themes of interesting movies and shows, both new and old. This time, consider the Palm Springs ending.
Oh, other people’s weddings. The events we absolutely love to hate. The sappy vows, the ceremony that seems to last forever, the less-than-stellar catering. Wacky weddings have always served as a great finale or even centerpiece for a good rom-com. Take, for instance, Bridesmaids or 27 Dresses or literally any Shakespeare comedy.
But what if instead of being the icing on the cake of a meet-cute or a hilarious roadblock on a journey of self-discovery, it’s a horror-scape from which you literally cannot break free? Now, that’s a whole different ball game. And that’s the premise of Max Barkabow’s Palm Springs, which follows Nyles (Andy Samberg), a jaded wedding attendee who has found himself in an infinite time-loop and has subsequently resigned himself to witness those “I dos” for eternity.
He’s soon joined by Sarah (Cristin Milioti), another guest who gets sucked into the loop. Though he’s convinced nothing could possibly take him by surprise ever again, Nyles quickly discovers that being trapped in the loop with another person is a game-changer and might just give the waking nightmare some meaning. The two embark on a journey comprised of attempts to escape, trying to make the most of every day, and — yup, you guessed it — falling in love.
From the outset, Palm Springs takes on the same tired trope of repeating the same day over and over that was popularized by Groundhog Day and has proliferated into a genre in itself, with films including Happy Death Day, Source Code, Premature, Edge of Tomorrow, and numerous others. But, with the Palm Springs grand finale taking a surprising sentimental twist, Barkabow takes the trope and turns it into something new. So, what’s up with that ending? Let’s dive in.
After a romantic camping trip together, Sarah realizes she has feelings for Nyles. That paired with her being forced to wake up next to her sister’s fiance every morning gives her enough of a motivation to really break the time-loop. So, she hunkers down and learns all there is to know about quantum physics (easy enough), and then she tests out her theory on a goat (which thankfully survives). The idea is to blow up the cave and use the 3.2 seconds that it takes to be propelled outward by the blast and subsequently transported back to that morning to flee the loop.
It’s important to note what Sarah is actually doing here with physics, as the details might give us more insight into what really happens at the end of the film. Sarah studies up on “String Theory,” which argues that, instead of being made up of tiny particles, the world actually comprises of one-dimensional strings that interact through vibrations. There’s one problem with String Theory, though: in order for it to actually function, multiple dimensions would have to exist, and there isn’t any concrete evidence of this being the case.
When she feels confident enough in her scientific ability, Sarah asks Nyles to come with her. He surprisingly refuses, saying that their life could be great in Palm Springs together, but if they tie explosives to themselves, the result might be less than favorable. “I can’t keep waking up here,” Sarah responds and decides to do it herself anyway. At the last minute, Nyles has a change of heart and tells Sarah that he doesn’t care if the explosion kills them. He’d rather die with her than live without her.
And so, the lovebirds make their way into the cave, adorned with explosive gear. Sarah tells Nyles she loves him back. She presses the detonation button. Then the screen goes black. Did they die? Were they transported to some alternate timeline? Will they simply return to the beginning of the day as usual? Or did they actually manage to escape?
In the next shot, Sarah and Nyles lie asleep in a pool on pizza-shaped floats at the house whose owners Nyles had discovered were on vacation. They wake up, and Sarah asks Nyles what he wants to do now. He tells her he wants to go get his dog.
This final interaction is funny, sweet, and indicative of blissful normalcy. Sarah and Nyles acknowledge that they have escaped the time-loop not only by the realization that the owners of the house have returned but, more significantly, by emphasizing the most important thing moving forward: no matter how mundane the “next step” might look, they’re lucky to get to do it together.
So, the two seem to think that they have escaped, but this is never actually affirmed. Yes, it’s possible, and even probable, that this is the case, but it’s also possible that the explosion killed them and they’re actually dead and living in some sunny-California afterlife. Or this new day might be repeated over and over. The final shot could be evidence that they haven’t quite made it back to “real life”: the camera pans up to reveal the same dinosaurs they saw on their camping trip prowling on the horizon, which might indicate that they are still in some alternate reality.
And that’s where we come back to our String Theory: in order for Sarah’s explosion experiment to really work, the place that she and Nyles were propelled to had to be another dimension: one in which time works in a linear fashion, and, maybe, one that has dinosaurs.
So, either Palm Springs has the ultimate fairy-tale ending — the lovers make a leap of faith and break the curse — or it has a darker takeaway, which suggests that they’re dead or stuck in another time-loop. It’s up to you to decide, really. But I pose this question to you: would the latter be so terrible? After all, the two end up together. Does it really matter where?