Last year gave us two innovative multiverse twists on the well-worn time-loop trope: the Netflix comedy series Russian Doll, and the horror/comedy Happy Death Day 2 U (a sequel to 2018’s Happy Death Day). One would think there wouldn’t be many new veins to mine in this subgenre, but Palm Springs rises to the challenge, delivering a slyly subversive, charmingly self-aware time loop tale that toys with audience expectations in subtly surprising ways.
(Some spoilers below, but no major reveals.)
Screenwriter Andy Siara (Lodge 49) wrote a draft of the script while still a student at the American Film Institute, although there were no science-fiction-y time loop elements in that version. He has said he was inspired more by Leaving Las Vegas than Groundhog Day. Eventually he reworked the script with the help of Director Max Barbakow (Palm Springs is Barbakow’s directorial debut), and Saturday Night Live alum Andy Samberg (Brooklyn Nine-Nine) signed on to star in the film. The film premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival (pre-coronavirus), and sparked a bidding war for distribution rights. Neon and Hulu ultimately shelled out a purported $17.5 million for those rights—the biggest deal yet in Sundance’s history.
Per the official premise: “When carefree Nyles (Samberg) and reluctant maid of honor Sarah (Cristin Milioti, How I Met Your Mother, Fargo) have a chance encounter at a Palm Springs wedding, things get complicated when they find themselves unable to escape the venue, themselves, or each other.” It’s Saturday, November 9, of an unspecified year (although that date fell on a Saturday last year). Nyles is attending the wedding of Abe (Tyler Hoechlin, 7th Heaven) and Tala (Camila Mendes, Riverdale) with his younger girlfriend Misty (Meredith Hagner, Search Party), who is one of the bridesmaids.
Meanwhile, Tala’s sister Sarah, as the black sheep of her family, mostly deals with the nuptials by drinking heavily. (“It’s not good wine,” Daisy the barkeep warns her at the reception. “I don’t care,” Sarah responds.) She also forgot to prepare the traditional maid of honor’s speech. That’s when Nyles steps in, delivering a note-perfect toast to divert attention from the drunken Sarah. Over the course of the evening, that initial spark of attraction strengthens, and when Nyles reveals that Misty is cheating on him with Trevor (Chris Pang, Crazy Rich Asians), Sarah agrees to sneak off with him for a hookup.
That’s when things get weird. Just as Nyles is stripping down, a crazy guy named Roy (J.K. Simmons, Counterpart) shoots him with several arrows. A badly wounded Nyles flees into a nearby cave, urging a horrified Sarah not to follow him. But she does, and finds herself sucked into a glowing orange vortex—before waking up in the same bed as before. It’s Saturday, November 9 again. When she confronts Nyles, he confesses that they are stuck in “one of those infinite time loop situations that you may have heard about,” reminding her that he warned her not to follow him into the cave.
Palm Springs sets itself apart from the outset, because when we first meet Nyles, he has already been “looping” for an indefinite, but clearly long, period of time—long enough that he has become cynically resigned to his fate of reliving the same day (and wedding) over and over and over. It also takes a page from Russian Doll, in that there is more than one person caught in the loop.
The strength of this approach is that we get to experience the same looping day from different perspectives—and Nyles gets to watch Sarah work through all the various stages of processing her situation that he did, offering his jaded “been there, done that” commentary along the way. Think committing suicide will close the loop? “I’ve done a lot of suicides, so many,” Nyles said, advising that she make it as quick as possible if she’s going to try it. “We can’t die but the pain is very real. There’s nothing worse than dying slowly in the ICU.” When she drives back to her home in Austin, TX, she still wakes up back in Palm Springs. “One time I smoked a bunch of crystal and made it all the way to equatorial Guinea,” Nyles confesses. “It was a huge waste of time.”
Eventually, she comes around to his philosophy that nothing matters and they might as well have some fun to pass the endless days. And as with Groundhog Day, Nyles soon realizes he loves Sarah, the person who made his infinite time loop existence tolerable. But Palm Springs isn’t your typical rom-com morality tale about becoming a better person to win the girl. Both Nyles and Sarah were damaged and unhappy before they got caught in the loop, and the second half of the film takes on a more earnest, bittersweet tenor, as their facade of pretending not to care starts to crumble. This is evident when Nyles chastises Sarah for a particularly cruel act against another character, which she excuses because the day will just reboot anyway. “The pain is real,” he reminds her. And that means “what we do to other people matters.”
When it comes to fictional time loop science, less is always more.
Can you really know somebody if you nothing about their past? What if every day you wake up, you are reminded anew of the pain you caused someone you love? Or, perhaps worse, what if you had a pretty good life, and now will never get to see how it all unfolds? The film explores all of these questions, to varying degrees, and takes us to some unexpected emotional places in the process.
As for what caused the time loop in the first place, it has something to do with an earthquake during the wedding that reveals the mysterious cave with the glowing orange light. Eventually Sarah takes advantage of the infinite loop to learn some physics. She hypothesizes that the cave is home to a so-called “Cauchy horizon”: a theoretical point inside a black hole (beyond the event horizon) where determinism breaks down, and the past no longer determines the future.
It’s not a well-fleshed out (or scientifically accurate) explanation for a time loop, but that’s okay. Milioti told Vulture that in the initial cut of Palm Springs, Sarah gives a three-minute speech explaining the physics behind what she and Nyles are experiencing, but it was cut in the final edit. “It was just so long,” she said. “And while it completely explained everything, they had all these screenings for friends and family and they were all like, ‘The speech is great, you don’t need it.’” When it comes to fictional time loop science, less is always more. (The physics-experiment-gone-awry explanation in Happy Death Day 2 U was the weakest element in an otherwise entertaining film.) Just set up the rules of the game, and let the cause or origin of the loop remain a mystery.
I’m not a hardcore Samberg fan, but he gives a sweetly acerbic performance as Nyles, and his strong chemistry with Milioti is ultimately what makes Palm Springs work. You’ll be drawn in by the sharp, smartly irreverent humor, but you’ll be won over in the end by the film’s considerable heart.
Palm Springs is currently streaming on Hulu.
Listing image by YouTube/Hulu