Time Loop madness: making right what will have once gone wrong.
Friday is the 13th. Some of you may be gearing up for screenings of your favorite Jason movie. I’m getting excited for Happy Death Day, the latest Blumhouse production, which hits theaters this weekend. The trailer hits all the notes that get me excited. Slashers, time loops, and perfect popular music cues. As a kid, I never fully embraced the slasher genre. I saw some of the big titles, but no deep cuts. These days, I keep on the lookout for a good slasher. Or, really any slasher. I spent my summer vacation this year deliberately educating myself on all the deep cuts I missed in the 80s and 90s. Aside from that, and in addition, time travel stories are my jam. If you’ve got a book, or comic, or movie about time travel, I’ll give it a look. Imagine my joy when I saw those two genres gleefully mashed up in a trailer against the dulcet tones of 50 Cent’s “In Da Club.” So much joy.
Time loops give storytellers so much room to play. There are several approaches. In some, the characters have to deal with meeting their past selves as they navigate time travel. Think Back to the Future. In others, the trip back in time gives them a clean slate. So to speak. Think Groundhog Day. It can be science fiction. It can be fantasy. The device doesn’t matter so much as the impact it has on the characters. Movies are just our way of telling stories. We tell stories to learn about ourselves. These types of time travel movies are fun to explore because in most cases they force the characters to thoroughly confront themselves and bear the consequences of their choices.
Happy Death Day looks to be a real winner for me. In the meantime, here are six other movies you should consider if you want to get in the time loop spirit.
Nacho Vigalondo is a filmmaking madman and I love him for it. His bonkers kaiju flick Colossal is one of my favorites this year. The man knows how to give us characters we care about in a setting that is totally fantastical. His turn in the time loop genre offers no less. Timecrimes is a time loop married to a mystery.
Hector (Karra Elejalde) seems to be a recent retiree. He and his wife are renovating a house. He also seems to be a bit of a peeping Tom? Sitting in his backyard, he spies a young woman undressing. As he tries to creep on her, he sees a mysterious man covered in a pink bandage mask seeming to threaten her. Worried for her safety, he does what any busybody peeping tom would do: goes to investigate. In the woods, he’s set upon by the bandaged man and flees for his life. Conveniently, his new house is just down the road from a research facility, which appears to be investigating time travel. Naturally, he winds up going back in time to hide. Kismet. But only to earlier that morning.
Hector tries desperately to unravel the mystery as he loops through the day several times. Time travel makes everything more complicated. In this time loop, the day doesn’t reset as he goes back. The research facility doesn’t grant him a do-over. Rather, the film becomes a nesting doll of cause and effect. This is my kind of temporal madness. It mirrors our own experience with reality. We can’t simply go back and try again and again and again to perfectly execute a day. Our mistakes and missteps follow us wherever we go. Hector experiences the same problem. Each attempt only adds more moving pieces to the puzzle he’s trying to solve.
I connect strongly with filmmakers as they try and solve the challenge of showcasing a digestible story to their audience. Timecrimes is a testament to Vigalondo’s ability to paint himself narratively into a corner and then work his way out. He’s given us a complicated mystery full of tension and scary moments as Hector is seduced by curiosity and pays the price for it. In the end, the story feels elegant in construction. Amazing. And Vigalondo does it all with style.
Edge of Tomorrow (Live. Die. Repeat.)
Doug Liman directs Tom Cruise in a time loop, science fiction, alien-invasion thriller. It will never cease to amaze me how the marketing for this film got so confused that they called an audible on the title when it came time to release it to Blu Ray. Whether you know this movie as Edge of Tomorrow or Live. Die. Repeat. or some combination of the two, you should know that it is essential viewing.
The movie is based on the Japanese novel All You Need Is Kill (why not keep that title?) by Hiroshi Sakurazaka. It’s also worth your time. The story’s premise is familiar: aliens invade. It’s all hands on deck. Survival of the species, people. All that jazz. Only, one person discovers that these aliens keep winning because they possess the ability to reset the day when their plans go wrong! Okay. Time loops and global annihilation. You’ve got my attention.
In this time loop, the events of the day do completely reset. This allows the filmmakers to have a bit of fun with their characters at times. Death becomes, at times, glib and silly because one death doesn’t mean anything. For example. What is Tom Cruise famous for? Running. Okay, that’s not correct. But, gosh darn it, the man can run on screen. And you know he loves to do it. Edge of Tomorrow features an amazing Tom Cruise running sequence wherein his character is crushed or exploded in multiple fast cuts, and it is perfect.
Cruise plays solidly against type as Major Cage, the hype man for the recruitment drive for the war effort. He’s baseless and totally terrified to step up and contribute in the way he’s called so many men and women to do for the planet. What is the reward for a job well done? He’s deployed to the front lines by the general, where he very quickly meets a brutal end on their D-Day. And the day repeats. If you see the movie for nothing else, watch it for Emily Blunt’s perfect performance. If there is a hero in this movie, it’s her. And she is flipping amazing.
Shane Caruth has made two movies: Primer and Upstream Color. When I say made, I mean, he has written, directed, produced, scored, edited, production designed, and sound designed two films. They are worlds wholly of his creation. The feat is impressive. They are also incredibly detailed, demanding multiple watches. I don’t fault films for complexity, but that’s either going to work for you, or it isn’t. If you are into being smashed in the brain by narrative, and you dig time travel movies, then Primer is the joint for you.
The idea is simple. Four friends are working part-time out of their garage attempting to invent the next big money maker. Think the creation of the personal computer. Along the way, they discover that their current project creates a time loop that allows the user to go back to when the machine was turned on. They can’t go back to the stone ages. Practically they’re limited to the start of the day. They approach it like any profit-minded fellows would: game the stock market. And yet, they are terrified of causality getting in the way. When they turn the machine on, they hide in a hotel room for a day. Then climb into the machine and start the day over, armed with the knowledge of the day’s events in the market.
Things go awry. Team members start abusing time travel. We’ve talked about Timecrimes. These guys are also operating in a closed timeline. No alternate timeline. Every time they go back, there’s two of them. As they start rehashing the same day, it gets very complicated to tell which version of the individuals we are dealing with. The story plays it very close to the vest as things fall apart. Maybe take notes? Seriously, you can go down a rabbit hole on the Google machine where people have painstakingly diagrammed out the timeline in this movie. It’s intense. Rewarding, but intense. Good luck!
This is a 2015 Australian film directed by the Spierig brothers starring Ethan Hawke and Sarah Snook. If Primer is pure complexity, this movie is pure feeling. The elements are hard science fictional time travel mashed up against an investigation. But, the story folds in on itself as you learn about the characters and how they relate to one another. This is a movie I recommend not reading too much about or watching too many trailers.
If time travel exists, the next logical step is a police agency for time travel. Well, which step exactly is irrelevant, because time travel. In this world, the time stream has a Temporal Agency. They are trying to stop a villain known as The Fizzle Bomber. We get much of this story through an agent’s conversation with a bartender. As the agent tells that story, we learn about Jane (Sarah Snook) and her relationship to the bartender, (Ethan Hawke), and the agent. It unwinds through this incredibly personal narrative of Jane’s life and her pursuit of finding her place in the world.
I’ve said the movie is pure feeling. My strongest recollections of it are all emotional. It pushes the envelope of the time loop well beyond the breaking point. There is no closed time loop. However, the characters and story almost exist in their own timeline, which overlays a very persistent reality. As it collapses in on itself, you’re left with emotion rather than the logic of a linear plot. Are we meant to be something? Are we always going to be what we were meant to be? How much of lives does that control? And, if we are, what that says for the emotional journey through the course of our lives. I’m still thinking my thoughts about this movie.
Vincenzo Natali’s 2013 film starring Abigail Breslin is a hell of a time loop. Or, rather, time loops can be hellish in their mundanity right up until you find something genuinely hellish. Breslin plays Lisa, who is the only one in her family aware that the same day is repeating. I’m not going to give too much of the plot away here because it’s one you’ll enjoy watching unfold. Why is the house surrounded by fog? Why don’t the phones work? With all that, why is no one bothered? And just what the hell is all the treasure in the cave?
I dig Natali’s films. From Cube to Nothing to Splice, he works within established tropes and shows us a unique perspective. Haunter follows in the same footsteps. Lisa is stuck in a time loop, yes. But, the way she works through ties in elements from other horror movies that, combined, play like power chords. Time travel movies aren’t always pure science fiction. Spells and witches. Ghosts living outside of time, like A Ghost Story. Whatever. Industrial research facilities don’t have to be the place of origin for all time travel problems.
Natali throws out the science fiction and gives a fright-filled exploration of time. One of my favorite elements of these types of stories is how the heroes, terrified of their own ends, weaponize the repetition and use it to figure out the mystery trapping them. This one will keep you on the edge of your seat as you wait to see how it all plays out. And, for you music nerds out there: there’s a musical tie-in to Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and The Wolf that is absolutely magical.
Rian Johnson’s forthcoming film may have gotten your attention recently. Perhaps this is because it’s a little joint by the name of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. You might have heard of it. I hope you got the tickets you were stalking. In the meantime, his prior filmography is worth your time and attention. Brick and The Brothers Bloom are outstanding.
Joe does murder for a crime syndicate. Well, they use the term “looper”. Only, his gig is different than you might see in other crime films. Troublesome people are consigned to a past where no one will think to look for their body. Temporal waste removal! Joe does his killing for the syndicate in the present. Basically, he drives out to a cornfield at an assigned time, waits for the person to pop into the time stream, and shoots them in the back. Easy money, if you don’t mind all the murder. The downside? The syndicate pays you out for retirement by sending your future self back for assassination. Things go wrong when Joe fails to kill himself.
In this case, we don’t have a repeating day to watch over and over again. However, parallel stories are not being told in different times. The two timelines are not causally linked. Present Joe (Joseph Gordon Levitt) and Future Joe (Bruce Willis) running around the present both have the ability to directly impact their future. In a very timey-wimey way, what will immediately become what has been. We bear witness to that as we work through the film. The future is a looming, nebulous specter totally malleable to our choices in the present.
Joseph Gordon Levitt and Bruce Willis both show up with grand performances with a plot that will keep you hooked to the end. As a result, it’s a heck of a fun watch. And it’s full of Johnson’s crackerjack dialogue. All the little turns of phrase and expressions, like “looper”, add an ambiance that will either pull you into the film or outright turn you off. It’s pure aces for me.