The Groundhog Day Formula

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Tom Jolliffe looks at the continuing popularity of the time loop movie

The radio kicks on. Phil Connors (Bill Murray) wakes up to the sound of I Got You Babe, by Sonny and Cher. His day starts with a news report, a few run-ins and inconveniences and it ends…then it repeats…and so it goes, as Connors relives the same day over and over again. Harold Ramis’ pitch perfect rom-com featured Bill Murray at his very best. The film was clever, hilarious and poignant. It’s a beautiful mix of elements that came together perfectly. The screenplay won a Bafta. This wouldn’t be the first film to deal with time loops, nor more specifically reliving the exact same day (Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer did this in 1983) but Groundhog Day was the one that really gained the most traction and became the blueprint for countless repeats of the formula.

Interestingly, that same year (actually preceding it) there was 12.01, which saw Jonathan Silverman reliving the worst day of his life (where his girlfriend is shot) over and over again. The Jack Sholder film, in its own right, was very enjoyable, played less for comic charm than Groundhog Day of course. It was also based on a well known short story by Richard Lupoff and had already been adapted as a short film a few years prior.


In years gone by the inherent sci-fi nature of a film with time loops, has seen a distinct move away from the laconic comedy of Murray’s trailblazer (which had a lot of charm from his ad-libbing, in addition to the perfect comedy beats). The endlessly repeating day has become something popular in sci-fi particular. Retroactive is an under-seen and underrated thriller with James Belushi. Nancy Travis inadvertently hitches a ride with an unbalanced and abusive criminal, who then kills his wife and is about to kill her. She then falls foul of an experiment gone wrong nearby which thrusts her 20 minutes back in time. So it repeats…

Skip forward and two of the more underrated sci-fi opuses of the modern age, Source Code and Edge of Tomorrow, also followed a repetition of the same time period. In Source Code, the key moment of the loop, a bomb which explodes inside a train, killing hundreds, is unavoidable. The key in the mission for Army Pilot Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), who wakes in someone else’s body, is in discovering the identity of the bomber before they can strike again. The concept is well delivered, and manages to make the tech of the film seem plausible, despite its implausibility. It explains enough, without over elaborating and prodding the point too much (this is similar in Edge of Tomorrow too). Duncan Jones took the well worn device, which brings with it inherit problems, and made it constantly gripping. Here’s the thing, cinema, in its most generic setting needs to propel you from A to B, to C. Perpetual movement forward, at a steady pace. The very nature of the time loop means playing moments back, it means repetition. Pulling off the time loop film without it being boring is a challenge, and short of resting on moments of comedic interaction (Murray’s repeated encounters with Stephen Tobolowsky for example are great), you need to keep the audience hooked. Jones pulled it off.


In Edge of Tomorrow, Tom Cruise is caught in a time loop, with the fate of humanity in his hands. An alien race on the verge of wiping us out must be stopped, and Cruise can do this within the time loop by playing out the perfect scenario in managing to stop them. The film plays out like old school video games, as Cruise goes through the fiendishly challenging obstacles that become increasingly testing, but in memorising patterns, finds his way through (eventually). It reminded me of playing Super Contra on difficult. Constant repetition was certainly required.  The underappreciated Cruise starrer, didn’t allow the Cruise persona to overwhelm it, and in raising the stakes so high (to the salvation of humanity no less), the film had an interesting variation on atypically more intimate scenarios.

In recent times there have been some good horror riffs on the formula too. Happy Death Day was described as Scream meets Groundhog Day and it certainly lives up to that billing (with a definite tonal style more in line with Scream). A girl turns 18 and is murdered, then relives that final day over and over, to try and discover who was behind it. It’s good fun for certain and did extremely well (a sequel, less endearing, followed). One lesser known film was Inoperable, featuring Danielle Harris. It’s a solid little time loop horror and a little underrated. Waking in a hospital with a storm on the approach, Harris repeats her day, up against malevolent forces.


One of the surprise packages of the last year also used the time loop as a kick off point. Palm Springs (scooped up under the Amazon Prime banner) was a very pleasant and unexpected film indeed. I enjoy Samberg, but like several comedians in his comedy brethren, he’s often sold himself short (and has found his best work in TV generally). It was great to see him on form here, without overplaying his Jake Peralta routine. Ably assisted by a wonderful Cristin Milioti, finds a great mix of comedy, with some surprising pathos and great sendups of the sub-genre itself. The characters have a preconceived notion of certain rules, largely based on what they’ve seen in TV and film and the flip up of bringing multiple characters independently into the loop also provides a nice twist. The great reviews which greeted the film also suggested that there’s life in the old time loop film yet and plenty of legs left in something we’ve seen in many guises now.

What’s your favourite time loop film? Let us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth…

Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021/2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…

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