Screencap of the film Palm Springs, which features a time loop

‘Groundhog Day’ and ‘Palm Springs’ Give Two Different Looks at the Time Loop

Both films use the trope, but their messages reveal what's changed in the 27 years between their releases.
September 7, 2020
10 mins read

Twenty-seven years ago, “Groundhog Day” graced screens. The film both reaffirmed Bill Murray as one of the greatest actors of all time and provided perhaps the most famous example of the time loop. Today, viewers are lucky enough to live with another great exploration of the phenomenon, and I’m not talking about the recent months of quarantine. I, of course, am talking about “Palm Springs,” the Hulu hit starring Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti.

Before going any further, be warned of spoilers ahead. For any readers who haven’t seen the films, I insist both are worthy of stopping time to watch as soon as possible (you can say that again!).

At first glance, both movies have a ton of similarities; the most obvious of which is, of course, they each take place within a time loop. The loop in “Groundhog Day” is Feb. 2 while in “Palm Springs,” it is Nov. 9. Each protagonist has a love interest who they encounter in their time loop and who eventually becomes the reason they escape the repeating day.

Key Differences

With the similarities in mind, the differences are extremely noticeable as well. Murray’s character, Phil, is introduced before he gets stuck in Feb. 2. Before the main events of the movie, Phil is established firmly as an egotistical weatherman who constantly puts down the people around him. No explanation for the creation of Phil’s time loop is given, and his eventual exit from the day is assumed to be him learning the hard lesson to be kind to other people. Ultimately, Phil changes to become worthy of his love interest, Rita.

Meanwhile, Samberg’s Nyles has been in his loop for a while when the movie starts — he became stuck in time through a mystical cave opening. The setup allows for other characters to join Nyles in the loop, most notably Milioti’s Sarah. By the time Sarah is introduced to the time loop, Nyles has fully accepted his fate and has adopted the “nothing matters” attitude. For a while, Sarah resigns herself to the situation but decides to find a way out when she has to face her own problems.

Each film follows the same trope: The characters must come to terms with the negative aspects of themselves and choose to change despite their circumstances. But each handles the love plot at the center of their story differently, even though, by design, love is usually the factor that makes people open to change and self-improvement.

Love in a Time Loop

In an interview, the writer of “Groundhog Day,” Danny Rubin, revealed how he came up with the premise of the film: “I started to invent this story about immortality that asked whether one lifetime was enough for the people who just can’t quite grow up. I thought that I would give a character more than one lifetime to live and see what happens. Then I saw how cumbersome of an idea that was, but I realized that you can have immortality if you just kept repeating the same day.”

Thus, the person stuck in a time loop occurs. The characters can’t change the day or what happens, which means they must change how they react to the world around them.

In “Groundhog Day,” Phil has two main goals: getting out of the time loop and getting Rita to be his girlfriend. When he realizes neither of his goals is possible in the confines of the time loop, he resigns instead to help others with his knowledge of the day.

Rita is the opposite of Phil at the beginning of the movie. She’s fun-loving, compassionate and pretty silly. She doesn’t need to be stuck in a time loop to learn how to care for others — she already understands how important empathy is.

Ultimately, “Groundhog Day” has a definite emphasis on changing yourself for the better, highlighting the positive impact it has on other people and how it will eventually lead a person to their goals. Once Phil becomes completely selfless, he is able to leave the loop and get the girl.

The Same Trope, But Different Goals

As stated, “Palm Springs” begins with Nyles already stuck in his time loop. When discussing his character in an interview, Samberg said, “He somehow knows everything that’s happening and is the master of this world. And then the longer it goes on, the more you realize he’s maybe so broken and so resigned to his situation that he’s actually just given up.”

Nyles has no goals when the viewer first meets him, since he has already accepted that nothing he does matters, and he is able to live every day consequence-free. At the start of the movie, Nyles tells Sarah, “We’re all f—ing alone.” When Sarah becomes stuck in the time loop, Nyles’ goals shift to include her in his daily plans, because suddenly he’s no longer alone.

Critically, Sarah cannot be like Nyles because every day she wakes up on the morning after her life’s biggest mistake. She can’t live completely consequence-free in the loop. For her to move on from her mistakes, she has to find a way out.

Unlike Phil, Nyles doesn’t see the point in becoming completely selfless for the benefit of others when faced with a time loop’s eternity. And unlike Rita, Sarah needs the expanse of time given in the loop in order to face herself and recognize she wants to be a better person. Eventually, Sarah’s wanting to be a better person encourages Nyles to do the same. Their ultimate change is wanting to change and feeling worthy of it.

What’s Changed?

The way Nyles and Sarah react to the time loop is different than Phil, fundamentally changing the meaning of the movies. And in the 27-year difference between the films, the message the audience needed changed.

“Groundhog Day” came out in 1993, when audiences valued the idea of an egotistical antihero learning how to look outside of himself enough to care about other people. In 2020, the audience has a greater need to look inside themselves and learn how to care about how their actions affect their own lives. Nyles and Sarah have trouble moving forward because they lack the confidence that they can be better people.

The relationship between Nyles and Sarah speaks to how romantic love is viewed differently, too. While Phil was learning to be the perfect person for Rita, Nyles and Sarah were realizing it’s all right to be imperfect together.

When discussing the new start the couple in “Palm Springs” makes at the end of the film, Samberg says, “Even in instances like Sarah and Nyles, where they’re both kind of really f—ed up people that have a lot of things to work out, it doesn’t mean they don’t deserve an opportunity to do that.”

Since about March, many people have felt stuck in a time loop. Luckily, the last month has proven an end is possible. At the beginning of it, many people shared grand plans of using the time to learn a new skill or to catch up on self-improvement. Don’t feel bad about not mastering the piano or learning how to ice sculpt. Times change and it’s overwhelming, but there’s peace in the change and allowing it to happen.

Anna Swenson, Butler University

Writer Profile

Anna Swenson

Butler University
English Public Professional Writing

Anna Swenson is an Indianapolis native who recently relocated to Valdosta, Georgia. She’s a senior at Butler University and studies English Public Professional Writing. Her hobbies include baking, cactus collecting, and traveling.

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