The early ‘90s represented a kind of Big Bang for the time loop narrative. Groundhog Day certainly wasn’t the first instance of a repeating time narrative in fiction, but it presented the relatively convoluted science fiction conceit with such humour, poignancy, and panache that it’s hardly surprising that, since then, many other shows and movies have followed in its wake.
Time loop stories can focus on the metaphysical or delve into the science fictional aspects of the scenario, but they generally represent different ways to approach the idea of feeling stuck in our lives and searching for anything that will break us out of a negative cycle.
If there’s ever been a time when it feels more like we’ve been trapped in an endless loop, it’s certainly now. Occasionally, fiction can point the way forward, so perhaps there are lessons to be found in these endlessly repeating and repeatable movies and TV shows. (Oh, and watch out for spoilers.)
“Cause and Effect,” Star Trek: The Next Generation (1992)
Remembering that this episode aired nearly a year before the movie Groundhog Day came out, I think it’s fair to give this hour the credit for kicking off an entire sub-sub-genre of time loop movies and TV episodes.
The brief pre-title sequence kicks off with the Enterprise blowing up — one of the show’s very best teasers — a shocking event for which we’re given no explanation when the next scene opens on a very chill card game. We build toward the moment when the ship blows up, then again. And again. The crew starts to experience moments of deja vu that slowly clue them into the fact that something weird is going on.
How to escape the loop? Without spoiling the details, it’s always helpful to have an android crew member, isn’t it?
Russian Doll (2019 — )
The best time loop narratives tend to go beyond the sci-fi wonkery of the premise to make the case that we’re very often our own worst enemies, and that we’re ultimately to blame for the ruts we find ourselves in. Just as Dorothy could have gone home whenever she wished, we, too, hold ourselves fast to the places we say we’d rather leave. That’s all here, but it’s very much subtext — Natasha Lyonne’s Nadia, a New York video game designer who finds herself stuck in her own cycle of live, die, repeat, isn’t the reflective type, and the show veers from darkly comedic to deeply poignant as it explores how her tendency to avoid her problems has trapped her in a loops both literal and metaphorical.
The show’s inventiveness is always in service of exploring the acerbic, funny, complicated Nadia (and, to a lesser extent, Charlie Barnett’s Alan, a fellower time looper). It’s a triumph of the trope from a powerhouse creative team that includes Lyonne, Leslye Headland, and Amy Poehler.
How to escape the loop? No sci-fi trickery here: it’s all about facing your dramas, forging connections, and joining the parade.
The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006)
Yasutaka Tsutsui’s 1965 novel of the same name is often cited as an early (and popular) use of a time loop narrative, and it’s been adapted multiple times in Japan. The best version is probably this 2006 anime from director Mamoru Hosoda (Mirai), following 17-year-old Makoto Konno who, following a bit of clumsiness that puts her in the path of an oncoming train, discovers that she has the ability to send herself backward in time.
Quickly deducing that the use of the power for her own gain can have unexpected consequences, she begins using the power only for small and frivolous things — which is fine, until she realises she can only use the power so many times, and that tragic circumstances might mean it isn’t there when she really needs it.
How to escape the loop? Makoto isn’t really trapped, except by her own desire to make use of her power. But a love interest from the future is able to help her transition back to a life lived linearly.
Happy Death Day (2017)
A surprisingly smart slasher (in spite of the silly title), Happy Death Day introduces mean girl Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) who wakes up in the dorm room of her nerdy classmate after a very drunken night of partying. It’s her birthday, but, on the way to her party, she’s murdered by someone dressed as the school’s ultra-creepy, baby-faced mascot. Then she wakes up in the nerd’s room all over again. Eventually realising her predicament, Tree sets out to solve the mystery of her own murder and to reconnect with her estranged father.
How to escape the loop? Figuring out who keeps killing her (and therefore not getting murdered) does the trick, but to do that she needs to become a more compassionate and open person.
Where to stream: Digital rental
In a rural town in Spain, a man named Héctor is fiddling with a pair of binoculars when he spots a woman being attacked in the nearby woods. His investigation leads him into the heart of a time travel experiment that he’s already, inadvertently, a part of.
It’s not that he’s caught in a time loop, strictly speaking, so much that Héctor keeps returning to the past in order to clean up a mess he made before he realised he was making it. First he attempts to alter the past, and then to lean into what’s happened before in the hope of correcting his one horrific error. The filmmakers present an incredibly (and necessarily) convoluted plot rather elegantly, so that everything winds up feeling inevitable. It seems that even given the power of time travel, mistakes aren’t so easy to correct.
How to escape the loop? Hector finally gets what he wants, but at a terrible cost.
See You Yesterday (2019)
See You Yesterday tricks you into thinking you’re signing on for a sci-fi romp — an early cameo from Michael J. Fox seems to underline it. As it begins, young prodigies CJ Walker (Eden Duncan Smith) and Sebastian Thomas (Dante Crichlow) develop a time machine and plan to test it by travelling back one day and scrupulously avoiding making any changes. Shortly after, the Spike Lee-produced film takes a dark turn: CJ’s older brother is shot and killed by an NYPD officer who mistakes a phone for a gun. CJ tries again and again to save him, but is frustrated as each attempt goes wrong in a new way.
How to escape the loop? The “loop” here has to do with an endless cycle of police violence and a broken American justice system — the movie is hopeful, but ambiguous, about our ability to escape from these patterns.
“Monday,” The X-Files (1999)
Mulder lies bleeding out on the floor of a bank at the episode’s opening, his attempt to thwart a robbery (and a bomb threat) with Scully having failed. Luckily, he wakes up the next day, assuming it was a dream and finding that he needs to get some money out of the bank — though that day ends much as the first one did.
The cycle keeps repeating, with the novelty being that it’s not Mulder nor Scully, but a minor side character who becomes aware of the loop. The robber’s girlfriend tries again and again to warn Mulder about what’s happening without much success…until the very final act.
How to escape the loop? Listen to the woman who clearly knows what’s going on, and internalise what she’s saying.
Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
After the movie fizzled at the box office, attempts were made to rebrand this late era Tom Cruise masterpiece as Live Die Repeat — a cooler and significantly more apropos title that they ought to have gone with in the first place. This is the time loop as full-scale action movie: Cruise’s inexperienced PR flak William Cage is forced into the frontline fight against alien invaders, only to find himself doused with alien blood that sends him into a time loop each time he dies horribly in battle.
With the help of Emily Blunt’s Sergeant Vrataski, Cage dies in increasingly elaborate and explosive ways on his road toward becoming the ultimate alien fighter.
How to escape the loop? A massive transfusion, it turns out, will wipe all that freaky alien time-blood right out of your system.
The Endless (2017)
Cult thriller The Endless toys with time loop tropes in really interesting ways (it’s a cult movie both in that it has a cult following, and in that its plot revolves around a UFO death cult). Brothers Justin and Aaron receive an invitation to return to the camp commune that they were a part of as children. Justin has come to see it as a cult, while Aaron has fonder memories. What they find there, following a friendly welcome, is a world of Lovecraftian horrors in which a powerful being is manipulating time for its own amusement.
Rather than a single character experiencing the same day over and over, the camp is a minefield of time trickery, with pockets moving at different rates and with individuals experiencing horrible fates over and over again. The film is a sort-of sequel to 2012’s Resolution, which is also excellent, but you don’t need to see one before the other.
How to escape the loop? Do you feed your childhood trauma, or try to move past it?
“Here I Go Again,” Legends of Tomorrow (2018)
Zari Tomaz/Tarazi (Tala Ashe) has been a member of the Legends in good standing for some time now, but back in 2018 she had only just signed on as a member of team Waverider — and it wasn’t a particularly graceful transition for the lone wolf hacker/freedom fighter.
So here we get a time loop that’s all about character-building, and not just for Zari. In the course of her attempts to make alterations to the ship’s computer, Zari is caught in an explosion which destroys the Waverider and sends her back to earlier the same day. Over the course of her multiple loops, she uncovers two desperate romances between team members, and the secret romance novel that one of them is working on. Not getting anywhere in terms of her investigation into the cause of the explosion, she even learns to play the violin.
How to escape the loop? It turns out she was never in a time loop at all, and was instead trapped in a computer simulation of her own making. But everything she learned about her teammates was real, and she comes through the experience with a new appreciation for her fellow weirdos.
Run Lola Run (2015)
Tom Tykwer’s hyper-styloized, hyper-kinetic classic sends Lola (Franka Potente) off to save her hapless boyfriend, who is in deep to themob and needs cash and fast, 20 minutes at a time. Each try gets her a little closer to a scenario that might work out.
How to escape the loop? Keep trying until you get it right. And keep those legs in shape.
“Mystery Spot,” Supernatural (2008)
While investigating strange goings-on at a tourist trap, Dean is shot and killed by the owner. It’s then not Dean, but his brother Sam who wakes up the morning of the same day with knowledge of what’s to come. There’s plenty of silliness here, and the show has some fun with the time loop tropes that it’s leaning into, but ultimately it’s about Sam coming to terms with the death of his brother — something that, by this point in the series, the boys already knew was coming one way or another.
How to escape the loop? It turns out that not all is what it seems here, but, if there’s any chance of moving forward it’s in holding onto hope, no matter how slim.
The Obituary of Tunde Johnson (2019)
A gay Nigeria-American teenager is murdered by the cops during a traffic stop. Every single night. He doesn’t remember the deaths, instead waking up each day gasping but determined to embrace his life, deal with the fact that he and his best friend are both sleeping with the same hot lacrosse player, and come out to his parents. The cumulative violence has an impact, though, colouring Tunde’s interactions day after day.
How to escape the loop? It’s not really that kind of movie; Tunde’s fate is never in his own hands.
Palm Springs (2020)
Cristin Milioti’s Sarah is already dreading attending her sister’s wedding, and that’s before she gets pulled into a seemingly infinite time loop already occupied by Andy Samberg’s Nyles, whose obnoxious behaviour at the wedding can be blamed on the fact that he’s already attended it a few thousand times.
The twist to the formula here is that it opens in media res, with Nyles already bored and exhausted by the meaninglessness of living a never-ending day, in contrast with Sarah, who is still very much determined to escape. Thanks to some genuinely inspired performances and a real sense of melancholy, the movie rises above familiar setup to explore new ideas.
How to escape the loop? Spend a chunk of your time in the loop learning string theory, and then decide whether or not you’re willing to risk everything for a chance to movie forward.
The Fare (2018)
The Fare establishes its premise with Twilight Zone-esque efficiency: When an intriguing passenger (Brinna Kelly) disappears from the back of his cab, taxi driver Harris (Gino Anthony Pesi) resets the metre to the moment the woman first stepped into the car, thus placing them both in an endless loop. The acting and gorgeous cinematography go a very long way toward selling the premise, as does the movie’s unique twist.
How to escape the loop? You can’t, really, but maybe you can be rewarded for accepting your fate.
“Replay,” The Twilight Zone (2019)
Jordan Peele’s Twilight Zone reboot had a more explicit time loop episode in Try Try, but this one is a little less traditional and a lot more interesting, and serves as the most harrowing episode of the entire rebooted series. While driving her son to college, Nina Harrison (Sanaa Lathan) discovers her camcorder has the power to reverse time, but only to the moment she first discovered how it worked. Encountering a violent cop while at a diner, she and her son are pursued across multiple iterations of time. No matter what Nina does, there is seemingly nothing she can do to save her son from the actions of the racist police officer.
How to escape the loop? The point here is that the “loop” of institutional and individual racism isn’t particularly easy to escape.