Andy Samberg's record-breaking Sundance hit Palm Springs is the latest entry in the storied genre of time loop movies.
These now-familiar stories involve one or more characters becoming trapped by mysterious forces that cause them to relive the same stretch of time (usually a single day) over and over and over again. The phenomenon was made iconic by the 1993 film Groundhog Day, in which Phil Connors (Bill Murray) is a jaded TV weatherman who becomes trapped in the small town of Punxsatawney, Pennsylvania for an endless recurrence of the titular holiday.
Watch out for that first step. It's a doozy.
It's such a bizarre, nonsensical premise that it's hardly surprising it took until 1993 for someone to give it a feature film treatment. What's much weirder is the fact that the trope has since become such a mainstay of TV and movies. It has appeared in recent years in Before I Fall, Edge of Tomorrow (AKA Live Die Repeat), two Happy Death Day movies, the Netflix series Russian Doll, among countless lesser-known works.
Each new approach tends to add its own twist to the formula, with Palm Springs trapping two people (Andy Samberg's Nyles, and Cristin Miloti's Sarah) in the same time loop at their friend's wedding in Palm Springs, California. Beyond that, the characters are largely guaranteed to go through much of the same process we've seen in every other iteration of a Groundhog-style loop—trying to convince others of what's happening, learning from their mistakes, taking advantage of their knowledge to manipulate people and events. It can begin to feel like we're watching the same movie over and over and over…
And yet, Palm Springs just broke Sundance's sales record. So what is it about this premise that keeps drawing us in?
For a start, the formula is a good one. Groundhog Day is a classic movie, one of Bill Murray's best, and I could personally watch it every day for at least a decade or two without getting sick of it. Adding some variations and some new characters while treading the familiar, satisfying path that Harold Ramis established for us isn't so bad. But there's definitely more to it than that.
For a start, it exaggerates the absurd and empty repetition of modern life—in which the routine of each day, each week, each year tends to blur and blend into the next in a uniform mass of cyclic mundanity that slowly wears us down until we're too old and decrepit to be of value to our capitalist overlords. By magnifying the drudgery of carrying on, a time loop has the potential to become the sort of prison and punishment that the ancient Greeks loved to imagine for the afterlife. Every day, Ned Ryerson—Needlenose Ned, Ned the Head—is going to try to sell you insurance. Every day, the radio replays the same drivel. Every day, we are doomed to repeat the mundane tortures.
And yet there is something about the time loop that is also freeing. You can say whatever you want and do whatever you want without consequence. One of the first things Bill Murray does when he realizes that he's trapped is to get wasted and get into a high-speed chase with the police, all with the assurance that he'll wake up in his bed with no hangover and no criminal record. The idea of speaking your mind and acting on impulse—of courting danger, excitement, and casual sex without risk of lasting consequences—is a potent fantasy.
But that still doesn't quite cover the explosive appeal of this new genre. It is tapping into a broader addition to media and culture: video games.
In the early 90s, the video game industry was in its adolescence. SEGA and Nintendo had brought it more fully to the mainstream, and facile attempts to convert that success into box office sales were already underway. But what movies like Super Mario Bros. overlooked was what people actually liked about video games. It wasn't so much about a character with a mustache fighting lizard people—or a drunken Bob Hoskins hiding his broken hand—people liked the experience of incremental improvement—of getting to try the same task over and over again, getting slightly better with each attempt, all in an environment in which the fear of failure was reduced to a transient concern. As the phenomenon of Let's Play videos has proven, people can even enjoy that experience vicariously, and that's what these time loop movies tap into.
The most obvious example of this is Edge of Tomorrow, which draws on many of the aesthetics and objectives of a sci-fi action game. Fight the aliens until you die. Figure out how to fight them better. Eventually make it to the boss alien and save the day with a climactic explosion. The centrality of the death-respawn mechanic is the most common alteration these stories make to Groundhog Day's original formula. While Phil Connors could live or die and still wake up to Sonny and Cher each morning for unexplained reasons, most of the newer versions—Russian Doll, Happy Death Day—have embraced a clearer narrative goal of not being killed. The loop resets each time the character dies, and they only need to survive/defeat their killer(s) in order to escape. Just like a video game.
There is a more frightening way in which video games have altered our culture, which these movies also point to: the gamification of life. While Groundhog Day doesn't specify how many times Phil Connors relives the same day, there's reason to believe his temporal captivity lasted multiple decades, if not much longer. That explains how Connors achieves a godlike knowledge of every person and event in the town—though not how he manages to maintain any semblance of sanity. He also becomes an accomplished pianist, a talented ice sculptor, a fluent French speaker, a practitioner of various life-saving skills, and really good at flicking playing cards into a hat.
The concept of having all the time in the world to develop those skills is alluring, but there are far too many influences telling us that this is how we need to spend the little bit of free time we have. Until you actually get stuck in a time loop, you are not a video game character, and you should not feel compelled to optimize every aspect of your life for some imagined future success. Just as you are never going to compete with a 19-year-old from South Korea who plays League of Legends professionally, you will probably never speak as many languages as Pete Buttigieg or learn as many household skills as Martha Stewart. And that's okay.
Whatever the message of Palm Springs or any of these other time loop stories, Groundhog Day makes its message clear: All those skills Phil picks up are not the key. It's not until Phil Connors engages authentically with his life and finds love that he is able to escape the prison of mundane repetition. Skill and success are both nice, but they cannot be goals themselves, because life is not a video game. All that work is empty without human connection. Love is the only real goal… Which is probably something Andy Samberg should have kept in mind before he decided to rip off the concept of his wife's fourth studio album.