Time-loop stories, by definition, tend to literally repeat themselves, but there’s a new trend within the recent trend of time-loop movies that creates an even stronger sense of déjà vu: the Perfectly Choreographed Routine. The basic idea is that a character has repeated the same day so many times that they anticipate everything that’s going to happen around them—a feat that initially seems impressive, but gets a little disturbing the more you think about it. In Hulu’s loopy 2020 rom-com Palm Springs, Andy Samberg’s nihilistic Nyles seamlessly weaves his way through wedding guests to impress the sister of the bride, Sarah (Cristin Milioti). To a certain extent, all time-loop movies tip their hat to Groundhog Day—the 1993 classic that put the trope into the mainstream—but with Nyles’s clairvoyant act, Palm Springs brought a wrinkle to the formula that felt fun and new.
Except now it isn’t. In the past month, not one but two different time-loop movies have jumped on the Perfectly Choreographed Routine bandwagon. In The Map of Tiny Perfect Things, the Amazon Studios rom-com released over Valentine’s Day weekend, small-town teenager Mark (Kyle Allen; not the NFL quarterback) has been stuck reliving the same day so many times that he’s memorized and responds to everything that occurs on his morning bike ride: tossing chocolate milk to a jogger, telling a stranger where he left his car keys, giving a cute girl directions before she even tells him where she’s headed, dismounting from the bike to hop on the back of a pickup truck, and so on. (The cleverness of the sequence is more a credit to director Ian Samuels, who lets most of it play out in a single take.)
Meanwhile, in Boss Level, a pulpy action movie that hits Hulu on Friday, a retired special forces grunt iconically named Roy Pulver (Frank Grillo) wakes up every morning to a ton of assassins trying to kill him. It’s happened enough times that Roy casually dodges a machete-wielding hitman while getting out of bed to pour his morning coffee and knows when to duck as a helicopter sprays bullets into his apartment. The key in Roy’s predicament is that he’s never survived the full day—he can barely make it past noon before he’s inevitably shot, decapitated, or blown up to repeat the cycle. As you can probably surmise from the title of the film, yes, it’s kind of like Roy is in a video game, respawning until he reaches the final goal.
Both The Map of Tiny Perfect Things and Boss Level have their charms within the time-loop formula—the former scratches the same rom-com itch as Palm Springs, while the latter plays like a second-rate Edge of Tomorrow. But between the ongoing pandemic, which has made an entire year seem like one continuous loop, and time-loop plot devices arriving with increased frequency across film and television, it’s starting to feel like my life is becoming a time-loop of other time-loops. I’m thinking about marking the occasion with a tattoo.
Time-loop stories didn’t completely go away after Groundhog Dog, but ever since Edge of Tomorrow—or as director Doug Liman prefers to call it, Live Die Repeat—came out in 2014, they’ve returned to the mainstream in (mostly) original forms. The three aforementioned time-loop movies notwithstanding, the most notable post–Edge of Tomorrow highlights include Before I Fall, about a teenager repeatedly reawakening from a fatal car crash; Christopher Landon’s Happy Death Day series, which puts a slasher spin on the formula; Tim Burton’s film adaptation of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, where the inhabitants of a decrepit orphanage survive by manipulating time to relive the same day in 1943; and the Netflix series Russian Doll, centered on Natasha Lyonne’s cynical video game designer Nadia, who is stuck repeating her 36th birthday party.
The obvious similarities between these projects, coupled with the fact that they’ve arrived within such a compressed time period, does heighten the feeling of déjà vu—as well as shameless copycatting—but it’s important to understand the context with the respective releases. Andy Siara’s Palm Springs screenplay was gestating years before Russian Doll became one of the buzziest shows of 2019; similarly, The Map of Tiny Perfect Things was itself hatched from a short story by The Magicians author Lev Grossman, who was inspired by one of the quieter moments between Tom Cruise’s and Emily Blunt’s characters at a farmhouse in Edge of Tomorrow. Meanwhile, Boss Level director Joe Carnahan originally pitched his project as “Groundhog Day as an action movie” in 2012, which preceded Edge of Tomorrow’s own release by two years. Trying to keep up with which ideas came first—versus which projects had the earlier release—is a real chicken-and-egg situation.
As long as they don’t get bogged down in the science of trying to explain how a time-loop happens to begin with—which ends up inviting only more questions—the appeal of time-loop narratives can be as simple as the premises. When characters are trapped in a repetitious cycle, the only way to change is to look within themselves. That rings true even within the action-oriented spins of the time-loop formula: In Edge of Tomorrow, Cruise’s character evolves from a coward into the soldier responsible for saving humanity from an alien species. Now, normal people aren’t Tom Cruise, but there is a universality to wanting a second chance at a past experience.
And while time-loop narratives rarely stray too far from the setup made famous in Groundhog Day, to the point that many characters in modern retellings directly reference the movie, there are even more allusions to how the experience is analogous to playing a video game. (And not the type of video games that were around when Groundhog Day came out in the early ’90s.) The action in Edge of Tomorrow has the scope and futuristic warfare of a Halo map—Liman has been candid about how much video games influenced his movie—while Boss Level employs 8-bit style graphics whenever Roy effectively respawns to fight gimmicky assassins who look like they were left on the Mortal Kombat cutting room floor. It might not be as important as other facets of Nadia’s life, but it’s certainly not a coincidence that Russian Doll’s protagonist develops video games for a living. Even The Map of Tiny Perfect Things winks to the audience about the similarities between a time loop and gaming: Every time Mark goes to hang out with his best friend Henry (Jermaine Harris), he’s losing the same level of a game he’s unable to beat.
But whether time-loop stories bear similarities to video games, find a sorority girl running away from a masked killer, or just fess up to the Groundhog Day–ness of it all, they always loop (sorry) back to introspection and self-improvement through repetition. Of course, the isolation imposed by the pandemic has underlined how razor-thin the margins can be between establishing a healthy routine and feeling like you’re caught in a Sisyphean struggle—maybe sitting through multiple time-loop movies right now isn’t an escape so much as art imitating life. “We kind of have no choice but to live,” Nyles tells an exasperated Sarah in Palm Springs, which unintentionally doubles as a meta-commentary on the new normal of the past year. “So I think your best bet is just to learn how to suffer existence.” Given enough time, maybe all of us will have our own Perfectly Choreographed Routines locked down (again, sorry).
Whether or not you currently have the mental fortitude to endure a time-loop binge in the middle of our loopy monotonous reality, there is a reason we keep getting drawn into these stories. There’s the allure of second chances, the hope of breaking a bad cycle, and the promise that it can actually be done with enough self-actualization. Shaking free of banality can happen only by taking things one slightly less repetitive day at a time.