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Bill Murray’s character Phil gives a heartfelt on-camera speech in Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day. Photo: Columbia Pictures

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Time-loop stories are about being stuck, but the genre keeps moving forward

Palm Springs is the latest entry in a long-running, innovative genre

[Ed. note: minor spoilers ahead for the premise of various time-loop movies.]

Since Groundhog Day came out in 1993, the film’s title has been an easy way of describing any new movie or show structured around a character being stuck in a repeating day. Russian Doll, Happy Death Day, Edge of Tomorrow, and the new comedy Palm Springs are all built around the same time-loop conceit, to the point where they’ve been described as “a twist on Groundhog Day.” That comparison belies a crucial thing about each of them, though: time-loop stories all center on repeating experiences, but every new major addition to the subgenre so far has found a fresh take on that central idea.

Groundhog Day had Bill Murray living through the same day over and over until he learned how to care about other people. The other four aforementioned time-loop stories also involve self-discovery, but unlike so many other recent reboots and remakes, which tell the same story with nothing new to add to the mix, these time-loop tales layer new elements on top of the building blocks audiences already find familiar.

two people on pool floats Photo: Hulu

Russian Doll added a level of mortality, making it clear that staying in the loop indefinitely wasn’ an option, and would result in death. Happy Death Day turned the time-loop into a slasher film and a murder mystery. Edge of Tomorrow turned the ability to loop time into a commodity. The latest entrant in the genre, Palm Springs, adds the ability to bring new people into the time-loop, as well as a way out that has nothing to do with morality.

The constant innovation occurring within this extremely niche subgenre seems antithetical to the repetition driving it. But the creative element makes sense, given how specific the subgenre’s parameters are. A certain amount of time — almost always just a day — continues to repeat. It’d be difficult to use that framework without either adding a new ingredient to the mix, or literally just remaking Groundhog Day. The baseline plot is also so simple that it defies being easily franchised — any sequels to a time-loop story need some extreme escalation, or again, it’s just a remake.

The Happy Death Day sequel, Happy Death Day 2U, manages the feat by adding alternate dimensions, so characters may run into different versions of each other in their new loop. The film is a wild expansion of the baseline time-loop idea, explicitly drawing from the science-fiction trappings of time-loops to make the proceedings even zanier. (Edge of Tomorrow also has a follow-up in the works. Director Doug Liman has described it as a “sequel that’s a prequel,” but no further details are yet available.)

Babyface and Tree (Jessica Rothe) in Happy Death Day 2U Photo: Universal Pictures

Other recent reboot-sequels like Men in Black: International and Child’s Play have tried to coast on telling the same story, only changing facile details (a character’s gender, updated tech and pop-culture references), and that surface-level approach has always flopped. The concrete lesson to take from many rebooted IPs making little to no impact is that there has to be a reason for telling a story again, whether it’s by addressing the change in times since the original iteration (Nia DaCosta’s upcoming Candyman) or altering the story so it features something significantly new (Tim Burton’s Dumbo).

Time-loop stories have followed this rule through constant reinvention. Any comparisons between Groundhog Day and Palm Springs end at the fact that the characters are constantly repeating a day, and the phenomenon pushes them toward a little soul-searching. By introducing more people into being stuck in a cycle, Palm Springs interrogates how the equation would change if being trapped didn’t also mean being alone. It also actually uses Groundhog Day’s popularity as permission to start the movie in the middle of the story. When Palm Springs begins, Nyles (Andy Samberg) has already lived through countless time-loops, saving the audience the trouble of rehashing an old concept. His eventual explanation to Sarah (Cristin Milioti) about what’s going on is mercifully brief, too, since even as an audience stand-in, coming into the situation, she doesn’t need an extensive explanation to understand all the narrative possibilities of the loop.

Palm Springs is building off Groundhog Day rather than retelling it, and so are its peers in the time-loop genre. These new chapters don’t follow in a linear order; instead, they sprawl out, adding new, different aspects to a genre that could easily give into the premise it’s built on and repeat itself. It’s the Mad Max: Fury Road of genres — new installments can be based on known concepts and plot elements, but they reconfigure them to explore new ground. Where Fury Road updates the Mad Max series by going all-out on colors and action, movies like Palm Springs and shows like Russian Doll bring Groundhog Day into the 21st century by realizing that the central time-loop is a vehicle for the story, rather than the message itself.

Palm Springs premieres on Hulu July 10th.