Film The Visual

How “Palm Springs” Upends the Time Loop Trope

"Palm Springs" turns the time loop trope into a lesson for modern times.

Time loop movies like Palm Springs (2020) are more relatable now than ever. The protagonists’ lives have been reduced to a bubble, their days are repetitive, and they spend all of their time with the same people. Sound familiar? Palm Springs takes a modern spin on this narrative device that feels particularly relevant today. By the time they leave their time loop, protagonists Sarah (Cristin Milioti) and Nyles (Andy Samberg) have looked inward and learned to embrace themselves. Will we be able to do the same?

The Groundhog Day (1993) scenario of re-living the same day over and over again, usually restarted when a character falls asleep or dies, exists in storytelling to give characters cyclical journeys. In Hollywood action films like Looper (2012) and The Edge of Tomorrow (2014), heroes jump back in time to fix the past and save humanity, tweaking little details every time. The emotional journeys in Groundhog Day and Palm Springs are a departure from other time loop narratives: the device is more profound and echoes the repetitiveness within ourselves. 

In Groundhog Day, Phil Connors (Bill Murray) is an insufferable weatherman who begrudgingly covers the annual Groundhog Day festival, only to realize he is reliving February 2 over and over again. In Palm Springs, Sarah and Nyles attend Sarah’s sister’s wedding. Once they meet, it becomes apparent that Nyles has been stuck in a time loop for quite some time, reliving the nuptials day after day—which Sarah becomes trapped in, too. Crucially, they are reliving November 9 together

Phil’s time loop is fast-paced and slapstick, and one-liners are used to inject humor into his process of self-discovery. Even driving into a pit and subsequently combusting can’t trigger a gateway back to a linear timeline. The fluid nature of the time loop narrative allows for Phil’s character to experiment with multiple outcomes, far removed from reality and forgoing any permanent physical consequences. However, there are mental ramifications. Phil has repeatedly created his own suffering, both within and outside of the time loop. It’s his own shortcomings that causes him to get slapped in the face by his coworker, Rita (Andie MacDowell), who repeatedly rebukes his advances. Unlike the dynamic between Nyles and Sarah in Palm Springs, Phil’s intentions come off as one-sided. It appears that he is initially pursuing Rita to prove to himself that he can win her over. Rita’s clear rejection pushes Phil along a path of self-improvement in order to change his ending. 

While Phil’s development in Groundhog Day is an egotistical endeavor, Nyles and Sarah’s different perspectives of the same time loop allow them to elevate each other: Sarah’s proactive attitude lifts Nyles out of his passive resignation to November 9, and Nyles’ nihilism grounds Sarah’s self-destructive tendencies and acknowledges her, instead of shaming her. Unlike the fast pace of Groundhog Day, Palm Springs features a slower storytelling structure. The protagonists’ personalities are teased out to the audience, and to each other. Sarah makes a point of getting to know Nyles precisely halfway through the movie, exposing their vulnerabilities as they smoke up at night around a campfire. She confesses to Nyles that she’s been stuck once before, in a marriage that she knew wouldn’t last. Nyles reveals that he can’t remember much about his life before falling into the time loop, establishing a lost connection with himself. Here, the purpose of the time loop is not to discover how it works, but for the characters to reconnect with themselves.

Palm Springs uses the time loop narrative to center on the characters’ mental state, making the device accessible on an emotional level. Through the film’s subdued mood, we learn about the protagonists piece by piece. Sarah’s rather suffocating family life haunts her throughout the film. Later, we learn that she slept with her sister’s partner the night before the wedding. Sarah wakes up to this memory every November 9. Her guilt and shame is conveyed almost wordlessly as the camera looms over a close-up of her face. We literally zoom in on her repeated internal suffering, and the time loop becomes a device to project the persistent anxiety and uneasiness inside Sarah’s head onto the screen.

When we meet Nyles, he has already done everything imaginable in a time loop, just as Phil has. In the opening scene, Nyles tries to have sex with his girlfriend, but is unable to perform. Already, Nyles shows a pure disinterest in his personal life, which is followed by a sequence of monosyllabic exchanges that establish a rehearsed dullness. There is a repeated reel of Nyles waking up to the girlfriend he can’t stand, cutting to him jumping into a pool and cracking open a beer. Rinse and repeat. The lack of explanation regarding Nyles’ depressive state actually speaks volumes; the viewers won’t be given any insight into Nyles’ psyche because he doesn’t want anyone to know about his inner pain. 

As the narrative in Groundhog Day inevitably moves into its introspective slant, Phil realizes that he is a selfish person. He orchestrates the perfect day: He does a decent news broadcast before turning into an expert pianist and sculptor at night (putting our new lockdown bread-making skills to shame), all to impress Rita. He confesses his love for her, which she finally reciprocates. So, we are to believe that he has atoned for his past behavior when his time loop finally fully unravels into February 3. He has simply transformed into a morally good version of himself. The self-reflection in Palm Springs does not lead to a magical turnaround in the two leads’ personalities. By the time they leave the time loop, Sarah and Nyles have not inherently changed, but have learned to embrace themselves. Sarah earns her exit from the time loop by teaching herself complex physics. Her decision to actively find out how to leave the time loop is in turn a decision to embrace her future. She also convinces Nyles to come with her, who previously had a Stockholm Syndrome-like attachment to the time loop, a place where his life is entirely predictable.

By choosing to leave, both Nyles and Sarah make a very conscious decision to break free and grow as people in a new and unpredictable timeline. Phil, on the other hand, wakes up after his perfect day to February 3 by chance, as if the time loop is in control and signals to him that he has met the requirements to be set free. Instead of drastically altering their personalities, the time loop is only broken when Sarah and Nyles accept themselves as they are, allowing them to move forward, physically and emotionally.

Time loops as a storytelling trope have always been used for cathartic moments. Phil’s Scrooge-like transformation from a bitter, middle-aged man to a selfless, considerate human being is ultimately an exaggerated symbol of the need to be kind. Today, the catharsis of the time loop is tangible. We can almost feel time curving around to start again. In our global time loop manifested by lockdown, Palm Springs echoes the subdued mood of having to do the same thing every day in suffocating circumstances—but it also echoes the fact that the only way through the mundanity is to be kind to ourselves, as well as others.

What would you do if time stopped? Nowadays, this question rings differently and has been weaved into our own reality. We’re experiencing the time loop trope in a new light, allowing us to gain an emotional depth from this narrative time and time again.