Today: May 25, 2024

History Repeating – Time Loop Movies

There have been many films over the years dealing with the concept of time folding back on itself. The idea can be interpreted in many ways; it can be a reflection on what one would do if you had a second (or third, or fourth…) chance at a fateful decision. It can be a fairly literal way of looking at the concept of destiny, and fighting against it. Or it can be proof of the old saying “Hell is repetition”. Ed Boff takes a look at a group of films that all engage with the concept in different ways, in anticipation of this week’s release Edge of Tomorrow

La Jetée/12 Monkeys
There are two different sorts of time loop story; firstly, there’s the full-scale time paradox, a story concerning a series of events that causes itself to happen. One of the first films to really engage with this idea was a highly experimental French short from 1962, by Chris Marker, La Jetée (“The Jetty”). It concerns a prisoner in a post-apocalyptic future, made subject of an experiment in time travel, who’s fascinated by a recurring half-memory of his childhood. Told entirely in narration with still photographs, this was a smart, influential take on the subject, at a time when science fiction films in cinema were only beginning to be treated the same as it was in literature. It has inspired many over the years, including its style influencing many music videos, so much so that in 2012, it was named the 50th greatest film of all time.

But by far one of its biggest impacts was with Terry Gilliam‘s 12 Monkeys. A feature length reworking of the story concept, it contains many homages to the original, right down to a scene paying tribute to Hitchcock‘s Vertigo. Here, it’s Bruce Willis sent back to investigate the origins of a devastating plague… only to perhaps give someone the idea of releasing it in the first place. The film plays with ideas like madness, memory, and the notion of destiny. It’s probably one of the best film examples of a perfect circular time-paradox, as numerous events in the film are shown to have been caused by the journey back. The original Terminator did the same thing, and was one deleted scene away from fully showing it, but this one shows how everything that happens in the story all stems from its conclusion. It can be a bleak message, that once on the path you can’t get away, but there’s ultimately a message of hope within.

Groundhog Day
This is the second manner of time loop story, where time itself gets stuck in a groove. The short film and later feature adaptation 12:01 technically got there first, but it was this gem from Harold Ramis that was the standard setter for the concept. In fact, the concept is so tied with this film, that any TV show that has done the concept (which has included Star Trek: The Next Generation and Xena: Warrior Princess) has been said to be “doing a Groundhog Day”. Bill Murray is fantastic as the grumpy weatherman finding himself covering the same event on the same day over and over again. (In the original script, it’s made clear that he was going through this loop for about ten thousand years!). Why this one stands out though is the way that it looks at almost all the possibilities of what one would do with an ever-repeating day, with an impressive story-arc to boot. This is high concept filmmaking at its best, and a reminder of what a true talent we lost with Ramis.

Run Lola Run
This one from Tom Tykwer follows an interesting use of the concept, seemingly more inspired by video-gaming. As Franka Potente races to save her boyfriend, we get three different versions of the same frantic twenty minutes. In this case, the event is played out sort of like the extra-lives of a video-game, with her going back after each “game over”. While the film doesn’t directly say that she’s aware of the loop, there are little hints she remembers a few details from each time round. It also has the extra touch of showing the long-term consequences of each day for various characters in the story, showing how radically different things turn out for them each time. This is a good way of showing both how one could change things if given another chance, and how a small event can potentially have big ripples later on; small scale, and large scale in the same story.

In Primer, when what the pair of garage-based engineers have created becomes clear, it looks like this story is going to be more around the ethics of time travel. However, it gets revealed suddenly that more has been going on; that a loop has been created far earlier than you imagine, making one wonder if you’ve ever seen the “original” version of events. Primer shows how complex trying to think in the circular, and on occasion spiralling, nature of time can be. As hard as the characters in this try, they can never form what they call a perfect moment, entropy and disorder are always factors. This has lead to a narrative that has required a large number of websites using charts to try to understand what’s been going on. There are explanations of this film that suggest that there are nine different timelines we see parts of in the film, all looping around on each other. So less of a loop, more like a time Spaghetti Junction?

The concept of the potential inescapability of a destiny loop, and the existential dread of the concept means that it’s actually a very potent format for horror stories. There have been several over the years, such as the Spanish Timecrimes, and Vincenzo Natali’s Haunter, a very clever “reverse ghost story”. One of the most unsettling though is this ship-based tale from director Christopher Smith. Melissa George is a very captivating lead in a story partially inspired by the legend of Sisyphus, being trapped in a hellish cycle of murder, terror and madness. What’s more, it’s her acts of desperation to escape that ultimately condemn her further to her fate. While from the box for this you might get the impression the film is just Friday the 13th on a boat (so Friday the 13th Part 8 then?), this is something much smarter, and far more unsettling. Destiny in legends was always shown to be something to avoid, to struggle against, and this film, along with many time-loop stories, follow up on that concept well.

There have been many films over the years dealing with the concept of time folding back on itself. The idea can be interpreted in many ways….

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