If you could experience a day again (and again), would you do anything differently? This is a question many a storyteller has tried to explore, with film and TV offering the perfect vehicle for playing around with time — and who we are at different points of it — in the most unrealistic of situations.
We’ve seen movies and shows like Back to the Future, Doctor Who, About Time, and Interstellar all do vastly different and memorable things with time and time travel. One trope, however, is more haunting than the others: time loops.
In these stories, characters live a day or period of their lives over and over, and can only escape when they accept or do something they previously could not. Often, they’re the only ones aware of being stuck in an endless loop, which means that the narratives are often frustrating, isolating, and endlessly intriguing.
When done well, time loops in movies and TV shows leave a lasting impact. Here are five of our picks to watch time and time again.
Russian Doll (2019)
Netflix’s Russian Doll makes reliving the day of your death as existential as it is entertaining.
On the night Nadia celebrates her 36th birthday party, she unexpectedly dies and is tossed into a cycle, reliving the party again and again. As she navigates the time loop, she finds death at every ridiculous corner. Meanwhile, we’re treated to a visual wonder that glamorizes and interrogates life in the city.
The glitzy aesthetic and Natasha Lyonne’s top-notch line deliveries can be disarming, but the show is as complex as it is humorous. It explores themes like addiction and mental illness, and deploys some of the most compelling twists when you least expect them.
It features a dynamic cast of characters, too, with well-written women at the heart. And although the time loop trope might seem straightforward, Russian Doll takes it a step further by raising the stakes as the loop begins to unravel.
See You Yesterday (2019)
See You Yesterday similarly explores the repetition of the day of a person’s death, but combines both time loop and time travel elements. In the film, high school genius C.J. and her best friend Sebastian work on perfecting the time machine they invented.
It starts unassumingly enough, with warm depictions of an African-American community in a tight-knit neighborhood, and a pair of quick-witted nerds trying to get their Ghostbuster-esque time machine right. But See You Yesterday takes a heavy turn when C.J.’s brother is killed by police violence after being mistaken for someone else. With Sebastian’s help, C.J. travels back in time to try and stop the tragedy.
The film sees one of the more intentional uses of the time loop trope, tapping into nostalgia and leveraging that to bring relevant sociopolitical issues to the fore. Director Stefon Bristol even opens with a cameo by Michael J. Fox as the science teacher — a move intended to strengthen the movie’s message of uplifting Black kids and their realities in popular consciousness.
In using time loops to mirror our anger and hopelessness at endless cycles of violence, See You Yesterday illuminates structural injustices in a way that’s digestible to anyone of any age and background.
Groundhog Day (1993)
Groundhog Day cemented time loops in the pop culture imagination so firmly that the title has become synonymous with the trope.
The film follows Phil Connors, a bitter and self-centered weatherman who begrudgingly travels to Punxsutawney to cover Groundhog Day celebrations. But although desperate to leave, he finds himself forced to spend the night in town only to wake up the following morning reliving the previous day.
Phil takes advantage of the time loop to get into all kinds of shenanigans. He learns new skills, engages in reckless behaviors, treats people carelessly, and even comes up with creative ways to end his life — only to wake up on the same morning. Eventually, he begins to fall for his producer Rita, but falls into despair when he realizes the time loop will never let him connect with her properly.
The film is so quintessentially ‘90s in its wit, romance, and adventure — making it a perfect watch for those seeking a bit of upbeat nostalgia.
The Lazarus Project (2022)
In The Lazarus Project, the length of the time loop is longer than in most stories.
In it, George, a software developer, is recruited by the Lazarus Project, an organization manipulating time to stop mass extinction events. But although the project prohibits time traveling for personal motives, George has to weigh apocalyptic consequences against the possibility of saving his girlfriend Sarah. Traveling back six months each time, we see his morals tested and twisted more and more.
The show explores the classic ethical dilemma of saving a million lives, or risking it all for the one person you love. But with time travel in the mix, The Lazarus Project raises the stakes and explores at length themes of death, grief, and personal vs. societal duties.
Still, The Lazarus Project isn’t all doom and gloom, as the show strikes a great balance through entertainment. The stars of the series tell SciFiNow that the adventure is infused with a great deal of British humor and realism. This makes it grounded and entertaining, and all the more compelling, as we watch relatable characters contend with such huge questions and responsibilities.
Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
Starring Emily Blunt and Tom Cruise, Edge of Tomorrow is one of the best sci-fi movies to come out in the past decade.
The film sees Earth attacked by the Mimics, a seemingly undefeatable alien species. Major William Cage is tossed into battle, dying immediately, and waking up to find himself starting the day of his death all over again. But it’s only Rita Vrataski, an icon of the war effort, who knows what he’s going through.
Time loops in sci-fi movies are hardly new, but Edge of Tomorrow executes the classic formula refreshingly. It’s a visual spectacle with aliens, machines, and intricate action sequences. But what pulls you in is the gradual revelation of the Mimics’ capacity to rupture time.
As Cage uses each restart to get better at battling the enemy, the film introduces new sequences to avoid the monotony that time loop movies commonly fall prey to. The result is a well-paced, action-packed, and intelligently made film that offers the best of sci-fi.
What are your favorite time loop TV shows and movies? Let us know in the comments!