‘Palm Springs’ and the contemporary time loop

Hulu original offers a romantic comedy about nihilism

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(Photo courtesy of the IMDB page for "Palm Springs")

By Sophia Larson, Collegian Contributor

In the midst of both the monotonous and calamitous realities of life during a pandemic, the Hulu original movie “Palm Springs”, which premiered in July 2020, is an unintentionally topical rom-com about life and love while caught in a time loop.

The film takes place in Palm Springs on Sarah’s (Cristin Milioti) sister’s wedding day. Through an unfortunate series of events, Sarah gets caught in a time loop where she finds that Nyles (Andy Samberg), a plus-one at the wedding, has been stuck for years. “Palm Springs” is a vibrant iteration in what I will refer to in this article as the contemporary time loop.

When one thinks about time loops in film, the classic example is the 1993 film “Groundhog Day.” However, in the past few years there has been an influx of film and television that makes use of time loops as either the show’s main conflict or secondary layer of plot. Examples include “Russian Doll”,  “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”, “The Good Place” and “The Haunting of Hill House.” All of these examples use temporal anomalies featuring the repetition of the same events as a mode through which both the plot and the themes of the stories are developed. This phenomenon extends throughout different genres. In the case of “Palm Springs”, the tendency of these stories is toward realistic or dramatic comedy. The question remains, what is the contemporary fascination with being caught in a time loop? And furthermore, how is morality defined with characters and a story that does not abide by a linear sense of reality?

In the case of “Palm Springs”, the time loop is characterized by a sort of naturalistic indifference. Unlike “Groundhog Day” and some other iterations of the time loop trope, the time loop itself is not imposing any sort of moral ultimatum on its inhabitants. Sarah’s character, who is new to living in a time loop, makes the same assumption that many viewers make about the nature of the time loop. Sarah believes that if she atones for her mistakes, she will be released from the time loop. However, as Nyles already knows, the time loop operates on more nihilistic terms. The time loop has no morals inherent to it — instead, it is the burden of the characters to decide their own edict for life while existing in a world where all their actions are reset as soon as they fall asleep.

Despite consequences being moot in this version of reality, two things still matter: pain and love. As Nyles repeats throughout the film, “There’s nothing worse than dying slowly in the ICU.” Even though nothing the characters do will have a lasting impact, the pain they cause people, even if they don’t remember it, matters. Further, love makes repeating the same day bearable. Even when seemingly nothing matters, sharing it all with someone still means something. The time loop in “Palm Springs” distills life into its most basic elements, extracting the essential human values that exist even in a completely nihilistic world.

Why time loops have captured the imagination of modern creators lies more in the realm of conjecture than analysis. In my opinion, it lies somewhere in how the time loop merges the catastrophic with the mundane. In the midst of a global climate crisis, a controversial administration, racial injustice and, more recently, a global pandemic, catastrophe often feels like a backdrop to daily life. The time loop becomes an analogy for life, merging existential dread with the painfully mundane. The time loop, by merging these antithetical elements of modern life, allows for both comedy and tragedy, exploring both minute character details and broad existential questions. In the context of a time loop, no topic is too large or too small. For example, in “Palm Springs”, Sarah and Nyles discuss the multiverse and littering in the same conversation. Personal and cosmic conflicts carry the same weight within the context of a time loop, just as they seem to in real life.

“Palm Springs” is an incredibly skillful example of the rise of contemporary time loops. It probes at the same questions that other iterations of the phenomenon do without feeling derivative. It is a delightfully relatable watch for those of us still in quarantine.

Sophia Larson can be reached at [email protected]