The Anxiety of Time Travel

Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti in Palm Springs (Hulu)
Three comedies about tampering with time illustrate the folly of a primal human desire.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE I n this spring and summer of temporal stagnation, when the ordinary hebdomadal rhythms have been shattered, rush hour consists of commuting from one room of the house to another, and I have to remind myself what day of the week it is, I find myself thinking about time more than usual. How long will we be stuck in this bizarre and unasked-for present before life chugs forward again? Why do we crave that sense of moving toward something, anyway? Will I regret the resumption of normal life? Hulu’s new movie Palm Springs, an amusing and thoughtful romcom, was filmed before the Wuhan virus got going, but it brushes lightly up against some of the peculiar questions of life in 2020.

Palm Springs, which stars Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti, takes one of the richest and best-loved of Hollywood comedy concepts — the Groundhog Day idea — and adds a twist that potentially redefines it: What if you could share the time-loop experience with someone you loved?

Spoilers follow for Palm Springs and two older time-travel comedies, Click (2006) and About Time (2013). Each of these films focuses on a different kind of time manipulation — a different button on God’s remote control — and all follow the same path of discovery. Whether given the ability to rewind, fast-forward, or hit the pause button, we would at first revel in our might, but eventually we’d achieve the wisdom of understanding that it would be better not to mess with time at all.

Click, the Adam Sandler comedy, is not a good movie, but it has a profound thought at its core. Written by two screenwriters who had previously collaborated on another effects-driven high-concept blockbuster comedy, Bruce Almighty, Click asked: What if you had a remote control, but for life? Sandler’s character, an ambitious architect who finds family life to be dull and enervating, mainly uses the remote to fast-forward through domestic ennui — arguments with the wife, kids being annoying. Neither he nor the audience initially catches the implications of what he’s doing, but his magical device is actually malignant. By fast-forwarding through the dull parts of life, he has fast-forwarded through . . . life. This being a reassuring Hollywood picture, he gets handed a George Bailey-style second chance to learn his lesson, and he throws away the remote. Amid all the dumb sight gags, the film presents us with an underlying truth: Even our least pleasant experiences have value. We wouldn’t be human without them, and being human is a reassuringly shared project, not to be avoided.

Click captures the sensibility of being in one’s thirties or early forties, when the stresses of raising children and quarreling with one’s spouse feed on each other, and frustrated days seem to pass too slowly. If only I could skip this part is a thought that has lodged in many a parent’s mind. In contrast, About Time, the British comedy in which Domhnall Gleeson plays a young lawyer who learns from his father (Bill Nighy) that all of the men in the family have the ability to leap across time at will, was written by Richard Curtis in his mid-fifties, and its focus is on jumping back rather than ahead. As Curtis dealt with the loss of his parents, he found himself wishing he could rewind, re-live, re-experience. Gleeson’s character uses the time-travel gift primarily to repair errors by going back in time and re-enacting scenes that he didn’t get right the first time around. In a beautifully climactic moment, he explains how he settles on a policy of wielding his powers not to become rich and famous but simply to live each day of his ordinary life twice, the second time with a lightness and a sense of perspective that enables him to be a better person. Eventually, though, just as Sandler’s frustrated dad throws away his remote control, Gleeson’s Tim puts his superpower back on the shelf and stops traveling around time. He learns finally to accept and savor life as it comes, every triumph and every disappointment. “We’re all traveling through time together every day of our lives,” he says. “All we can do is do our best to relish this remarkable ride.”

It’s the same conclusion at which the principals arrive in Palm Springs, in which Samberg and Milioti play Nyles and Sarah, two wedding guests who get stuck repeating the same day together. The rules are that no matter what they do, after the day ends either in death or in falling asleep, each of them will then wake up back at the same property where they started, on the day of the wedding. Previously unacquainted, the two bond over their shared plight, become lovers and use circumstances to their advantage. They can do whatever they want — start barroom brawls, party all day, do dangerous stunts — because they know there are no long-term consequences. The element of grim solitude that understandably led to Phil the Weatherman’s suicidal thoughts in Groundhog Day is removed. Wouldn’t it be a lark to have a partner with whom you can try anything you want, going anywhere you want, without aging, with only the one little snag about having to start each day over in the same place?

And yet Sarah is miserable anyway. She studies physics and builds an explosive device designed to either eject the pair of them from the time loop or, possibly, kill them both, this time forever. She argues that any risk is acceptable given how terrible the circumstances are, but Nyles isn’t so sure. He tells Sarah he loves her and can’t deal with the possibility of losing her. Neither, however, makes the case for the superiority of the status quo, despite even the attraction of immortality. The happy ending they seek is that her plan will work and that the two of them will be jolted out of the time loop so they can resume a normal life — advancing toward mortality like everyone else.

That’s a mature outlook and, to the extent it counsels acceptance of things that can’t be changed, a conservative one. Today’s movies are frequently derided for being adolescent and meretricious, for ignoring genuine human dilemmas in favor of fanciful concerns with all things superhuman. Ostensibly fantasies, Click, About Time, and Palm Springs stand in counterpoint, finding that our primal desire to master time and achieve immortality is a false idol. We’re best off accepting our lot, which is to travel through time together.

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