Hello Dames Nation!
We are Anna and Alene, the Bellwether Friends! We share our thoughts every few weeks on our eponymous podcast, where we speak authoritatively about many things while acknowledging that we are not actually authorities on most subjects. You should trust us, because we’re librarians! Check out our commemorative 100th episode, in which we discuss our namesake (and top five book of all time), Bellwether by Connie Willis, with the Two Bossy Dames and other luminaries!
Not an uncommon sentiment in these exceedingly wild times.
Have you ever had the feeling that your day is repeating? Been struck by déjà vu? Had the feeling that your day is repeating? Been struck by déjà vu? We’re here today to discuss the phenomenon of the time loop, which was brought back to our attention by the recent release of the series Russian Doll on Netflix. A time loop is loosely defined as one or more people experiencing a series of events or period of time over and over again. The loop restarts when the main character dies or some other precipitating event occurs. The loop ends when the character fulfills the requirements of the narrative. While we acknowledge and appreciate that time loop narratives exist in book form, we have primarily been occupied over the past month with their realization on film.
Anna: There’s something fascinating about watching a main character going through the same scene over and over again with increasing awareness and dismay as they realize they are trapped in time. On some level I assume that this must be what it’s like being an actor. One of the things I enjoy about watching time loop movies is second-guessing the characters on their choices as they struggle to extract themselves.
Alene: I wonder how long it would take me to realize I was in a time loop, since there are many aspects of my life that play out the same from day to day. And yet I am extremely impatient with characters in time loops when they don’t figure it out the first time it repeats! I’ve had a great time comparing the ways different films approach the repetition. Some replay the whole loop more than once, some jump immediately to highlights after the first pass, some dive in and expand on particular moments from loop to loop.
In the aforementioned Russian Doll, cynical game designer Nadia Vulvokov (Natasha Lyonne) finds herself caught in a time loop that restarts on the night of her 36th birthday. While trying to figure out why this is happening, she encounters a stranger (Charlie Barnett) whose life seems to be linked to hers. If you don’t have access to Russian Doll via Netflix, it will probably (eventually) be released on DVD and subsequently available at your local library.
Alene: Nadia got around my skepticism promptly by thinking her time loop might be drug-induced. Her friend Maxine’s (Greta Lee) reading of “Sweet birthday baby!” made every round special and surreal. Can I just say I have loved Natasha Lyonne since Slums of Beverly Hills? Please don’t get bangs, even if you are just as cute and stylish as Natasha/Nadia.
Anna: Your distrust of bangs is on the record. All the characters in Russian Doll are so vibrant and memorable, no matter how little time we get to spend with them. Nadia’s foster parent Ruth (Elizabeth Ashley), a therapist, says that “Holding two incompatible ideas in your head at the same time and accepting both of them, well, that’s the best of being human.” My therapist was always trying to get me to do this; it’s a quintessentially therapist thing to say. I also appreciated Nadia’s clear Jewish-ness, which is an integral part of her character (more on that here, along with a huge host of spoilers).
Russian Doll feels different from many time loop narratives because of the (mild spoiler) inclusion of another character with their own loop, allowing the audience to see how different people approach the conundrum in the same universe. Instead of remaining fixed, inanimate objects age and decay while Nadia keeps looping. There are also regrettably few time loops that feature female protagonists. More on the emotional labor of lady time loopers in this excellent piece by Natalie Zutter. Russian Doll truly is appointment television.
A deep and eternal truth.
The most well-known time loop tale is 1993’s Groundhog Day, in which misanthropic weatherman Phil (Bill Murray) spends anywhere from 8 to nearly 34 years reliving the same day in the small Pennsylvania town of Punxsutawney, emerging at last with a better outlook on life and the love of Andie MacDowell.
Anna: I remember watching Groundhog Day but not, ironically, watching it over and over as I did many other movies during that era. It does say something about our culture that the universe is forced to repeat a day for 34 years to teach one white man a lesson.
Alene: This brings up something that I never considered until we watched Russian Doll: what is going on for everyone else? Are they just carrying on with their lives after Nadia (or Phil) die? Are there n parallel futures out there after each of Nadia’s deaths (or Phil’s days)? Nadia references Ruth grieving her fifteen times. That tears my heart out.
Time loops lend themselves particularly well to the horror, mystery, and romance genres. Potential lovers can get their meet cutes just right with enough opportunities, sleuths have plenty of time to track down all the clues, and time loops reset by death allow for a glorious proliferation of gory outcomes.
One of the most intriguing recent uses of the time loop trope has been in the movies Happy Death Day (2017) and the recently released sequel Happy Death Day 2 U. Much in the mold of weatherman Phil, at the beginning of the first movie sorority girl Tree (Jessica Rothe) is impressively self-centered, to the point where the viewer would not be blamed for rooting for her death at the hands of a killer in a baby mask.
This gif should come with a trigger-warning for scaredy cats like We Your Dames
Ostensibly horror/slasher movies, the Happy Death Day franchise has stealthily created two films that require their heroine to confront the death of her mother in order to defeat her demons.
Anna: As documented in episode 73 of Bellwether Friends, I’m not a huge fan of horror, particularly not the kind that involves spurting blood. But Happy Death Day was fun! And sweet! There’s a romance! The sequel made me cry bittersweet dead-parent tears. All of the time loops where the main character dies to reset seem to include some horrific elements.
Alene: When the main characters realize this and start killing themselves to restart the loop, I get grumpy because I don’t like suicides played for laughs.
In 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow (aka Live. Die. Repeat.), based on a Japanese novel, Cage (Tom Cruise) is a cowardly public relations officer forcibly enlisted to fight the alien race occupying Europe. The main appeal of this one, if you’re not fond of creepy aliens that whirl around super fast, is war hero Rita (Emily Blunt) repeatedly shooting Tom Cruise in order to make the day reset.
Anna: Alene, given that you’re always hoping during previews that Tom Cruise’s characters will be skeletonized by rats, how did this measure up?
A high-point of modern cinematic wish-fulfillment.
Alene: There really is something delightful about Tom Cruise playing an unlikable antihero who is repeatedly put to death by misfortune and his costar.
Anna: I loved seeing Emily Blunt as a kick-ass action hero.
Alene: Edge of Tomorrow had a quality I see in video games, where a player who has to get through a battle scenario makes the same moves and dodges each time, advancing the action a little bit farther only to die in the next moment and go back to the beginning. Times a hundred.
Many time loop stories involve a mystery of some sort, ranging from the relatively minor “How do I get this day to stop repeating? Ugh, personal growth.” to “How do we save the planet from aliens?” In the movie (adapted from the book of the same name) Before I Fall (2017), teenage protagonist/antagonist Sam (Zoey Deutch) tries to solve the mystery of her own death and in the process goes through the typical Stages of Time Looping:
Attempting to repair
Giving up and doing whatever the hell you want
Settling down and finally figuring shit out
After several resets, she concludes that if nothing she does changes the outcome of her loop, she might as well be as unpleasant as possible to her friends, family, and the world in general. Since she’s one of the mean girls at school, this isn’t a huge stretch. However, she eventually comes around to a very Groundhog Day-esque approach to her last day, making amends and trying to help someone else. Are there any time loopers who don’t have self repair to do and amends to make?
Alene: This is a particularly alluring aspect of time loops for me, the possibility of replaying an awkward situation or mistake made until one gets it right. I mean, I do it all day long in my brain, so having it played out on screen is soothing.
Anna: I’m not sure that Russian Doll’s Nadia needs a lot of fixing, although she is carrying a lot of grief about her mother. Maybe a time loop offers characters the luxury to see beyond their daily routines and address underlying issues?
The release of female-centered time loop stories like Russian Doll and Happy Death Day hopefully augur well for the progression of the time loop trope away from the trials and tribulations of white men. Looking at the genre as a whole, one might be forgiven for thinking that time loops only happen to white people— give us a metric ton of well-conceived repeating days with people of color at the center!
Luckily, we were able to find at least one with non-white protagonists: the Netflix film Naked— a remake of a Swedish film. In it, Rob (Marlon Wayans) is a groom whose loop starts when he wakes up naked in an elevator on the morning of his wedding to Regina Hall, already late for the ceremony. Over the course of a very Groundhog Day-like film, Rob journeys from immature and unreliable to marriage-worthy as he sources nice clothes, writes his vows, learns to dance, makes friends with Brian McKnight, and solves the mystery of the night before the wedding.
Alene: After being a little confused that it took more than one loop for him to prioritize clothing his naked self before trying to get to his wedding, I was taken in by Rob’s essential sweetness and tickled by his backup-singer-to-the-stars mom (Loretta Devine) and her almost famous™ stories. I also appreciate that he went through all the aforementioned Stages of Time Looping.
Anna: I’m glad we found this one! More, please! Although I could do with less violence to the main character. Bonus points for Scott Foley in a villain role.
First impressions are important in terms of romance, and there are several time loop or time loop-adjacent romantic comedies that explore the idea of alternate timelines.
Alene: I love Sliding Doors, the 1998 movie in which a pre-GOOP Gwyneth Paltrow catches a train, thus getting home in time to discover her boyfriend in flagrante delicto with a brash American AND also misses the train, splitting the timeline to continue supporting her good-for-nothing writer boyfriend long past his use. In both timelines the charmingest charmer John Hannah charms, and through the magic of movies (and a somewhat blithely glossed-over tragedy), the timelines re-merge and we are hopeful for the future.
Adorable Drew Barrymore is repeatedly wooed by Adam Sandler in a tropical paradise in 2004’s 50 First Dates, which is only a time loop in that Drew’s character has a special fictitious amnesia and doesn’t form memories after the accident that gave her amnesia. The whole town works together to keep Drew thinking it’s the same day, and Adam has to figure out how to get her to fall in love with him in what amounts to a single day.
Anna: How very Groundhog Day. Which is also a romance!
Alene: Using time travel to make sure you get the girl is both creepy as heck and somehow extremely cute when Domhnall Gleeson does it to Rachel McAdams in 2013’s About Time.
Anna: I’m very fond of the made-for-cable movie 12:01 (1993), starring Jonathan Silverman as an accountant (Barry) who falls in love with scientist Helen Slater (Lisa), based on a short story by Richard Lupoff. Barry’s the only one aware that everyone is stuck in a time loop because he had an electric shock at the same time the particle accelerator responsible for the looping was fired up. Hijinks ensue!
There could be so many more time loop romantic comedies! I would like a time loop movie where the main character has to break the loop by figuring out which person that they encounter is the one they should be having a relationship with. Ideally this would take place in New York City or some other well-populated location, so there would be lots of attempts at romance. It could also end with them figuring out they’re happiest alone. And a peaceful reset each time, none of these suicides and bullets to the head.
What does it say that mainstream popular culture keeps repeating this style of narrative (see what we did there)? Is it about relentless self-improvement? Returning to a crucial moment and choosing differently with the assistance of hindsight? Many time loop films make it clear that their characters are in a kind of purgatory; Sam’s first-period teacher in Before I Fall mentions Sisyphus, forced to repeat the same task endlessly. However, the notion of repetition and repair seems to go beyond religious boundaries. Perhaps time loop films reflect a cultural obsession with the questions of fate and free will. Hot take: The gif format is nothing but a tiny time loop that we have been incorporating into the very FABRIC OF OUR LIVES— you heard it here first.
Whether audiences are interested in examining these larger questions or just want to see Tom Cruise get shot repeatedly, it’s clear that there will always be more time loop, parallel universe, time slip, and alternate timeline stories to come. And the Bellwether Friends will be here for it.
Time loop movies that we haven’t seen yet but want to:
Alene: I Do I Do I Do, a Hallmark Original Movie, has an architect repeating her disastrous wedding day over and over until she discovers what she really wants in life.
Anna: OMG I picked that one too!
A selection of time loop television episodes:
“Death Ship,” “Shadow Play,” and “Judgment Night” - The Twilight Zone
“Monday” - The X-Files
“Cause and Effect” - Star Trek: The Next Generation
“Life Serial” - Buffy the Vampire Slayer
“Hot Mess Time Machine” - The Mindy Project
“"Twas the Night before Mxymas" - Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman
See also: Three Recent Time Loop Episodes That Are Instant Classics
Where to find time loop narratives:
What are your favorite time loop movies, television series/episodes, and books? Tweet at us jointly @BellwetherFrnds or individually at @helgagrace and @surlyspice.
[n.b. Alene has seen Source Code and doesn’t want to talk about it.]
On our podcast, we always close our episodes by sharing our current obsessions: songs, books, movies, television, and other things that are resonating for us at the time we record. We compile our musical obsessions into a Spotify playlist for everyone to enjoy. In that tradition, our musical obsessions and regular obsessions this week are as follows:
Alene: “Time after Time” by Cyndi Lauper (although I am always up for a Glee cast interpretation of anything)
Anna: “Now That I Found You” by Carly Rae Jepsen (perennial Bellwether Friends favorite)
Alene: Helen Hoang’s clever and contemporary romances The Kiss Quotient and The Bride Test, both of which feature neuroatypical and nonwhite central characters!
Anna: Captain Marvel of course ; American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson
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