To begin our cinematic time travel journey, we begin with Hollywood’s most favoritest temporal anomaly: automatically resetting time loops (we’ll call them ARTLs for short). It’s a hyper-specific trope that just keeps showing up again and again (and again). By now, it would be reasonable to assume that, much like a day that keeps repeating over and over, the plot device would’ve stopped leading to anything new or interesting ages ago. The films below attest to the fact that, somehow, filmmakers (and showrunners) keep finding ways to create fresh new entries into the resetting time loop canon.
Now, first off, let’s be clear about what we’re talking about here. Time travel cinema is rife with all sorts of time loops, from the straightforward closed loops like the ones in Looper (that is, when things are going according to plan), to the convoluted sort in films like Primer (you know, the kind that make you break out a pencil and paper to figure out what the hell is going on). We’ll talk about some of those in a future list, but this time around we’re only talking about movies where a time loop keeps automatically resetting to the same moment over and over again.
I suppose for some, this may be a surprising place to start our studies in time travel, instead of, say, Back to the Future or 1960’s The Time Machine, but friends, you have to walk before you run, and we haven’t even started crawling yet. We can’t just jump straight in and learn how to build and operate a time machine immediately. That would be foolhardy at best, nay, downright irresponsible! There are so many dangers and pitfalls out there waiting for us. When shit goes sideways – and shit will definitely go sideways at some point – we need a good grasp of how to survive. Think of it like learning to put out a grease fire before being taught how to turn on the stove.
Toward that end, automatically resetting time loops – again, we’ll call them ARTLs – are the perfect place to start, because they’re basically one big closed course where we can get our legs under us as we prepare for all the mishaps we might encounter, and shenanigans we might get up to.
So, without further ado, let’s jump into some time loops. And don’t forget your booties, because it’s cooooold out there today!
“Well, what if there is no tomorrow?! There wasn’t one today!”
If we’re gonna learn how to survive a never-ending time loop, there’s only one place to begin: Phil Connors.
Groundhog Day is the one loop to rule them all. It didn’t invent the premise, but it’s the gold standard, and it always will be. A fact that’s proven every time someone is trying to describe any other automatically resetting time loop movie, and they say, “It’s like Groundhog Day, but…”
[Fun fact: Not only was Groundhog Day not the first film to explore the premise of a man being trapped in a time loop, but legal action was actually taken by writer Richard A. Lupoff and filmmaker Jonathan Heap. Turns out, they didn’t appreciate Groundhog Day’s similarity to Lupoff’s short story “12:01 P.M.” – which Heap adapted as a short film – in which a man is the only one who notices that the same hour keeps repeating over and over. I’ll tell ya what, compared to a mere hour, an entire day seems like paradise!]
We don’t know exactly how long Phil was stuck in his loop, but fans have put a lot of time into trying to figure it out. On the low end, the studio apparently claimed the loop lasted for two weeks, which is the dumbest fucking thing I’ve ever heard. At the other extreme are claims Phil was trapped for up to 10,000 years! That, too, is absolutely bonkers. If Phil lived for 10,000 years, I have to imagine he’d have lost anything connecting him to his humanity. He wouldn’t have wound up a better version of himself by the end of the film, but something more like an alien or a god, an unaffected saint or a stark-raving lunatic.
What we know for sure is that Phil was stuck long enough to become a master ice sculptor, a talented pianist, and a veritable superhero, saving the citizens of Punxsutawney from death, injury, heartbreak, and mild inconvenience. The majority of more reasonable estimates seem to land anywhere between 30 to 100 years. Either way, the poor guy was in that loop for a really long time.
Speaking of which, can you imagine how much therapy Phil will need to readjust? To go back into the chaos of real life after spending so many years knowing exactly what was going to happen from moment to moment?! To suddenly live in a world where anything that goes wrong doesn’t reset the next day?! As wonderful as his new relationship with Rita may be, that’s going to be a hell of a transition.
And that’s to say nothing of the fact that he would have been away from his entire life for decades. He’s been separated from nearly everyone and everything he knew, not experiencing anything outside the same day in Punxsutawney for decades! How sharp is your memory of your day to day life ten years ago? How about 30?! I sincerely hope that WPBH had good mental health coverage.
Another thing we know for sure is that the movie is a certified classic. That’s really saying something when you account for a troubled production that permanently ruined the longtime friendship and working relationship between Harold Ramis and Bill Murray. That, along with the fact that upon release few involved seemed particularly satisfied with the end result, and it’s a small miracle that Groundhog Day would become so beloved. And deservedly beloved at that!
I imagine they were even more surprised by how intensely the film has been pored over for its religious and philosophical significance. People from a diverse range of faiths and philosophies have weighed in on how Phil’s experience pertains to their own worldview. Just take a look at Wikipedia’s section on all the various thematic analyses of the film. People got thoughts!
Time Travel 101 Lesson: With relatively low stakes and no risk of permanent death and/or destroying all of time and space as we know it, Groundhog Day is the perfect place to ease into our time travel education. Even if the only thing we learn is that we may find ourselves in a situation where all we can do is accept our fate and make the best of it.
Time Travel 101 Bonus Lesson: Don’t drive angry.
“It’s one of those infinite time loop situations you might have heard about.”
In a case of accidentally perfect timing, Palm Springs hit Hulu in July of 2020, as the world was hitting the four month anniversary of total Covid lockdown. The movie found us all essentially waking up in a nightmare time loop of our very own.
Of course, the loop in Palm Springs is waaaaaay more fun that the one we’ve been subjected to. My time loop was spent eating my feelings and wondering how long was too long to go without showering, while protagonists Sarah and Nyles spent their endlessly repeating day wreaking havoc on a wedding reception, raiding the homes and pools of absent neighbors, and getting up to all kinds of assorted mischief, all with no fear of consequences. If I’m being honest, what I envied most was watching them patronize local bars and restaurants, but maybe that’s just me.
But don’t get it wrong, Palm Springs‘s fortuitous release date isn’t what makes it great. Riding the irresistible chemistry and likability of leads Cristin Milioti and Andy Samberg, it’s a charming, consistently funny film that leaves you happier than when you started.
Instead of attempting a major overhaul of the Groundhog Day blueprint, it brings fresh energy and updated comedic sensibilities to the well-established formula. More significantly, it adds a female protagonist who has agency and a three dimensional personality, as opposed to a static foil to help Nyles learn to grow.
Long story short, Palm Springs is most definitely a delightful entry in the ARTL tradition.
Spoilery Time Travel 101 Lesson: Sarah offers the best possible role model we could ask for, should we find ourselves trapped in a time loop of our very own. When she decides she can’t take it anymore, she buckles down and uses her endless days to take a deep dive into quantum science and time travel theory. She resolves to escape the loop or die trying. Sometimes, all you can do is put in the work until you figure shit out.
Good news: you’ve got all the time in the world to become an expert. Bad news: You still might have to risk exploding yourself out of existence.
Time Travel 101 Bonus Lesson: It’s much easier to survive being stuck in an endless time loop if you have someone to fall in love with.
Live. Die. Repeat. (aka, Edge of Tomorrow)
“What I am about to tell you sounds crazy, but you have to listen to me. Your very lives depend on it. You see, this isn’t the first time that we’ve had this conversation.”
If any lessons from Live. Die. Repeat. become relevant to you in your travels through time, things have gone terribly, terribly wrong. I sincerely hope none of us find ourselves up against extraterrestrial, hive-minded murder monsters, but it’s best to be prepared.
Tom Cruise’s Major William Cage keeps dying in the same battle over and over – a battle against seemingly unbeatable alien invaders, mind you – only to find himself resetting to that morning every time. He joins forces with Emily Blunt’s Sergeant Rita Vrataski, she trains him into becoming a super-soldier, and he dies again and again as he attempts to survive long enough to discover a way to defeat the pesky alien megapredators trying to wipe out all life on earth.
I suppose, in fairness, he deserves to share the title of best ARTL role model with Sarah from Palm Springs.
As miserable as the whole thing was for poor Major Cage, it was a damn good time for the rest of us! Which is why it sucks that the film only pulled in a weak domestic haul of just over $100 million at the box office. By all rights, the film should have done better. It’s a Tom Cruise action vehicle, it’s got mech suits, explosions, wonderfully designed alien baddies, and most importantly, Emily Blunt. The movie also received near-universal praise from critics. Yet, something went wrong on the way to release, and American viewers weren’t sold on the movie.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say the real culprit for the film’s weakness at the box office was the inexplicable decision to release the film as Edge of Tomorrow, instead of the vastly superior title, Live. Die. Repeat. (which was originally relegated to the poster tagline).
Whatever the reason(s), it’s a real shame, because nearly everything in this movie works (the pointless, narratively messy inclusion of J-Squad during the film’s climax not withstanding). The action is visually thrilling, it’s sneakily funny, and Cruise and Blunt give pretty compelling performances during breaks in the action. Most importantly for the purposes of this list, the clever premise – adapted from Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s book All You Need is Kill – is a genuinely fresh iteration of the ARTL trope.
Fortunately, the film’s box office saga has a happy ending. The movie had serious legs once it hit on-demand and streaming services, as a broader audience realized the movie’s actually pretty great, then told all their friends. Its streaming success is so considerable, in fact, that there’s likely a sequel on the horizon.
Fun fact: Director Doug Liman fought hard for the superior title; a fight he obviously lost. Now that he’s been vindicated, the sequel will reportedly be called, Live, Die, Repeat… and Repeat. A fact that retcons the original title, correcting a tragic, horrible mistake.
Seriously though, On the Edge of Tomorrow sounds like the title of a self-serious period romance epic. Live. Die. Repeat. sounds like the title of a story about someone who keeps dying, only to reset every time they die. They live, they die, it repeats. It’s a straightforward, catchy, easy to remember title, and it explains the premise right there in the name! Fucking studio execs, amirite?
Still, whatever you choose to call it, Live. Die. Repeat. is a greatly entertaining addition to the ARTL canon, even if we desperately hope we never find ourselves in a situation where its lessons are relevant.
Time Travel 101 Lesson: A time loop that kills you over and over again is definitely the worst kind of time loop (see also: Russian Doll, and Koko-di Koko-da). If you have the misfortune to find yourself in such a loop, your only real hope may be to lean into it. You’re gonna need to do whatever it takes to level up enough to survive the day.
Bonus Time Travel 101 Lesson: Edge of Tomorrow was a stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid title for this movie.
The Incredible Shrinking Wknd (El increíble finde menguante)
It’s not a loop. It’s a countdown.
Okay, so by this point we’re getting a pretty good sense of how to survive in an infinitely repeating time loop. But what if your time loop isn’t infinitely repeating? What if it’s shrinking instead?!
The Incredible Shrinking Wknd is a 2019 Spanish film following Alba, a directionless, irresponsible 30-year-old woman-child who finds herself stuck repeating the day her boyfriend broke up with her. That’s a shitty situation to begin with, but it gets infinitely worse when she realizes that her loop shrinks by one hour every time it resets.
[Bonus twist! Unlike other ARTLs, Alba doesn’t reset when the timeline does. For example, if she hasn’t showered for three resets, she smells like she hasn’t showered for three days.]
I realize that could easily be the synopsis for a zany, broad, high concept romcom setup. A movie with a trailer that’s like, “Her weekend is turning out to be a lot more than she bargained for, but it’s getting smaller by the hour!”
This is definitely not that movie. The Incredible Shrinking Wknd is subtle, understated and smart. Writer-director Jon Mikel Caballero slowly increases the urgency and desperation, pulling viewers further into Alba’s plight with each reset.
Most filmmakers would use the ‘time loop countdown’ premise as the core of a sci-fi thriller; a race against time as Alba tries to figure out what’s happening so she can free herself from the loop. Instead, Caballero uses it as the core of an emotional drama that touches on the rudderless ennui so many of us feel in our 30s. The urgency of Alba’s race against time comes from her attempts to see her life for what it is, and connect with those she loves before she quite literally runs out of time. Powered as it is by Iria del Río’s quietly captivating performance, it totally works.
The Incredible Shrinking Wknd is well worth your time. It would also be right at home on a list of great time travel/temporal anomaly movies you’ve never heard of, or perhaps a list of great foreign language entries. [Foreshadowing!]
Time Travel 101 Lesson: If you’re stuck in an endless, shrinking time loop, it might be the universe trying to tell you you’re stuck in a state of arrested development, and you risk being left behind by those you love.
“It’s starting over again, that’s what’s going on! Everything that happened to you happened to you before!”
The loop in Triangle is another ARTL absolutely no one would choose if they were forced to pick a loop to live in. There’s murder, mayhem, a masked killer, a creepy deserted cruise ship, and a plot twist around every corner.
[Real quick, I just need to point out how great it is that they set Triangle on a cruise ship, just like the classic time travel episode of The X-Files that bears the same name!]
Every time you think you’ve got stuff figured out, Triangle pulls back another layer, changing most of what you thought you knew. Even for the seasoned cinephiles among us, who pride themselves on seeing reveals coming a mile away, the movie has a habit of turning those reveals upside down later in the film.
For those of us watching, that’s really fun! For a person trying to survive the ordeal, it would be… less fun.
Now, it’s about to get spoilery. Simply knowing this is a time loop movie is a bit of a spoiler, but I’m about to turn the spoiler knob up to eleven. All my fellow spoilerphobes out there should STOP READING, jump down to the next movie, and come back after you’ve watched Triangle – and you should definitely watch Triangle!
Still here? Okay!
The most wonderful thing Triangle does to turn the trope on its head is obviously the fact that there isn’t just one loop resetting over and over in a vacuum. Instead, there are always at least three loops repeating simultaneously! (I’m pretty sure it’s three at a time, the film is called Triangle after all.)
That’s right, three overlapping iterations of the same loop repeating at once! Each interacting with the others! Not only that, but each loop actively causes the next reset to begin! I guess it’s a little bit like Timecrimes crossed with a version of Groundhog Day that takes the spiritual purgatory theory and cranks it way up.
This is one of those films I’d love to talk about with anyone out there who’s seen it. I’m definitely looking forward to some repeat viewings, as well as the inevitable theory rabbit holes I’ll be falling down!
Time Travel 101 Lesson: I’m gonna be honest, if you find yourself in an ARTL like this one, you’re most likely fucked. I guess the only lesson I can offer is, stay away from boats? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
“Easy does it. We’re only playing.”
Koko-di Koko-da is probably the most obscure movie on this list. It’s definitely the weirdest. Dark and bizarre, it trades a straightforward narrative for surreal metaphor. To say it’s not for everyone is the height of understatement.
Three years after losing their daughter, in a marriage strained to the breaking point, a couple goes camping in what I’d imagine was an attempt to rediscover the equilibrium stolen from them by such a boundless tragedy. Equilibrium is most certainly not what they find, as they wake up stuck in a time loop where they are terrorized by a twisted version of storybook characters with a penchant for cheerful menace and murder.
While at first disconcerting, and seemingly weird for the sake of weird, Koko-di Koko-da slowly reveals itself to be a poignant, even beautiful metaphor for the effects profound grief has on one’s relationships and identity, as well as the very different ways we experience and respond to its aftereffects.
Time Travel 101 Lesson: Even if our time travel gets really weird, I can’t imagine we’ll be thrown into a world where life as we know it is thrown out the window in favor of a purely metaphorical existence. Still, Koko-di Koko-da is yet more proof you should never go camping.
The Map of Tiny Perfect Things
M: “You could be a force for good.”
H: “Like Batman?”
M: “Yeah, like Batman.”
H: “But are we talking Dark Knight Batman, or Ben Affleck Batman? Because…”
M: “Dude, The Animated Series, obviously!”
Another brand new time loop romance thrown into the mix, this one is part of the ever popular young adult variety. With a script written by Lev Grossman (the celebrated book critic, journalist, and author of the excellent Magicians trilogy), The Map of Tiny Perfect Things is a breezy, skindeep-yet-enjoyable movie, anchored by an endearing chemistry between its two genuinely likable leads.
It certainly makes no attempt to reinvent the Groundhog Day wheel. Like Palm Springs, the most obvious difference is that two protagonists are aware of what’s happening. The unique thing it brings to the table is that it nonchalantly – but very much intentionally – subverts the typical formula for romcoms with a male lead.
Check this one out next time you’re looking for a bit of YA romance with a time loop twist.
Time Travel 101 Lesson: Sometimes, being unwilling to surrender to grief and acceptance means being stuck on the other side of life, looking in. Not really a time travel lesson, but, you know, a pretty valuable one.
“You don’t have to believe me, but I need you to trust me.”
Critics didn’t particularly like this low budget Netflix Original, but I think that’s a bad rap. It may pale in comparison to many of the other movies on this list, but it deserves better than its 43% Rotten Tomatoes score.
It’s a fun, compact, tightly paced action/sci-fi flick that’s both an ARTL movie and a bottle movie (as in, everything takes place in a single location). The film, which features under-appreciated performances from Robbie Amell and Rachael Taylor, offers some great twists and tweaks to the formula.
It’s definitely well worth an 88 minute stream next time you’re looking for something to watch.
Time Travel 101 Lesson: When it comes to time loops, or anything else for that matter, always take critical opinion with a grain of salt.
“Let’s change everything we can.”
In this 2017 Korean thriller, two strangers find themselves stuck in a time loop, desperately fighting the clock – over and over, of course – in an attempt to stop a deadly accident that kill’s one man’s young daughter, and the other’s wife.
While much of the internal logic and timing doesn’t add up, and it can get pretty silly in its melodrama at points, it’s still a really fun watch. It’s twisty and exciting, and the solid lead performances are earnest enough that the melodrama actually lands much of the time.
If you can find it, this is definitely a time loop worth jumping into.
Time Travel 101 Lesson: Even when time travel is involved, your past can still come back to haunt you.
As Seen on TV!
Automatically resetting time loops aren’t just for the big screen! Here are two great TV (aka streaming) time loops.
Alan: “You promise if I don’t jump I’ll be happy?”
Nadia: “No, man, absolutely not! But, I can promise you that you’ll not be alone.”
I adore this show. I watched it twice the week it came out, then again earlier this month (ostensibly for the purpose of this post). Two of those three viewings were in a single sitting (the other took about 12 hours, instead).
[In a fun bit of kismet, the day of my most recent rewatch it was announced that Schitt’s Creek’s Annie Murphy has signed on for Russian Doll‘s second season!]
At the end of the day, any storytelling device is just a tool to say something worthwhile. I’m not saying every single story has to be profound, worthwhile can include making people laugh, or jump, or cry, or scream, or feel something they wouldn’t otherwise have felt. In this particular case, however, what Russian Doll uses the resetting time loop trope to say actually is profound. It certainly makes me laugh more than enough to justify, say, the combined 12 hours I’ve spent willfully reentering the loop, but it’s also life-affirming and hopeful without being trite or flippant about how hard it is to be a person sometimes.
Overall, I’m pretty sure Russian Doll is my favorite ARTL. (To watch! It’s only my favorite ARTL to watch! I would NOT want to be trapped in that loop!)
Time Travel 101 Lesson: You’re not paying attention if you’re unfamiliar with despair. But you’re also not paying attention if you think you’re alone.
Time Travel 101 Bonus Lesson: Watch out for sidewalk cellars. Those things are a menace.
The X-Files – “Monday” (Season Six, Episode Fourteen)
“Scully, did you ever have one of those days you wish you could just rewind and start over from the beginning?”
Let’s say you’re stuck in a time loop. You’re the only one aware it’s happening, and your boyfriend blows up a bank full of people at the end of every go ‘round. It sure would help if someone else realized what was going on!
If this happens to you, Fox Mulder is definitely the person most likely to believe you. The guy has never met a theory too farfetched to believe (aside from Christianity, but the contradictions of Mulder and Scully’s religious views are a subject for a very different post).
Co-written by Vince Gilligan, the man would famously go on to create Breaking Bad, “Monday” is a great X-Files episode you should hop over to Hulu and watch right now.
Time Travel 101 Lesson: I can’t believe I’m going to type these words, but you should do whatever you can to avoid The X-Files. I really wish I could say that any paranormal experience, temporal anomalies included, are better if you have Mulder and Scully along for the ride. Trouble is, those who make guest appearances in ‘Monster of the Week’ episodes don’t have a particularly encouraging survival rate. As exciting as it would be to spend time with Fox and Dana — and as quickly as Mulder may buy into whatever craziness is happening — bumping into them might not be the best development.
Those ten movies are barely the tip of the ARTL iceberg. Other titles include: The Endless; Source Code; Hurok; Reset; Happy Death Day and Happy Death Day 2U; The Fare; Blood Punch; Run Lola Run (sort of); Before I Fall; If Only; Repeaters; Naked; Premature; When We First Met; Camp Slaughter (aka Camp Daze); Boss Level; and Game Over.
Plus, The Final Girls has some fun with a time loop, and Doctor Strange gets up to some time loop hijinks in his battle with Dormammu.