“Happy Death Day” and the “Time Loop” Film Genre
It begins with waking up. Your very first thought is how to make it stop. But the alarm keeps going. You have no choice but to get out of bed, even though what awaits you is the same as yesterday. The same weather, the same family, the same friends, the same school, the same songs on the radio. Even though it’s all happened before, you move with more urgency today. You’re rushing to a meeting you just remembered, something you scheduled long ago, when suddenly you wake up a second time. A revelation flashes through your mind: It’s not me who’s late, but everyone else! And then a worse thought pops into your mind: It is the world itself that has stopped!
Ever since 1993’s Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray as an obnoxious weatherman trapped in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, it was only a matter of time until Hollywood found the magical formula. Start with a troubled character attempting to accomplish a simple goal on an important day (get through the annual Groundhog Day broadcast and back to Pittsburgh), add a “natural” or “outside” problem that serves as a foil (an unexpected snowstorm), lay the seeds for a B-plot romance (fellow broadcast partner played by Andie MacDowell), and watch the great gears of repetition do their work.
After the 2014 Tom Cruise-Emily Blunt vehicle Edge of Tomorrow and the little-seen 2016 Netflix original ARQ, 2017 has seen at least two films that fit neatly into the “time loop” genre. The first is Before I Fall, starring Zoey Deutch as a popular high school student reliving Valentine’s Day, and the latest is coming out this weekend: a horror film, Happy Death Day, featuring Jessica Rothe as a sorority girl named Tree celebrating her birthday, only to be murdered at night by a masked mute.
How do we make sense of this latest fad in Hollywood? Is it simply a lazy form that filmmakers are falling back upon? Or are broader cultural forces at work here, shaping and determining these films before the first draft of scripts are ever turned in?
One way to classify the “time loop” movie is to file it under a category that film scholar Thomas Elsaesser calls the “mind-game film.” These films tend to be deeply psychological (the mind part of Elsaesser term) and include movies like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Memento, and Inception. In both Before I Fall and Happy Death Day, protagonists grow increasingly mentally unstable. Confusion gives way to depression and eventually suicide. Happy Death Day’s Tree wakes up every morning with a headache, demanding Advil from her one-night stand. Eventually, she starts consuming the entire bottle. Alongside mental illness, Before I Fall and Happy Death Day’s plots involve a classic trauma, the dead mother. Trauma, in psychoanalytic theory at least, can become a “repetition compulsion,” where the victims reenact the traumatic event within their dreams.
In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud identifies a vital location where trauma is worked through: childhood games. Likewise, only by solving “the game” can characters in “time loop” films return to a better state of mind. Elsaesser believes these films offer “productive pathologies” because they teach characters (and viewers) how to problem-solve within the matrix of society. Groundhog Day’s protagonist, Phil Connors, learns new skills (playing piano, French) in efforts to win the love of Rita. But it is ethical or spiritual improvement that saves him—Phil rescues a dying homeless man and prevents another man from choking on his steak at dinner. Eventually, Phil runs from one event to another, having perfectly calculated the most good he can do in a single day.
Before I Fall takes after Groundhog Day in that Deutch’s Samantha learns to put others before herself. This lesson, that you are not the center of the world, is the same as so many teen films: Sam learns to appreciate her parents and her younger sister. She breaks up with her jock boyfriend, Rob, and ends up with the boy next door, Kent. At the end of the film, she sacrifices herself to prevent the suicide of a girl her friends had bullied for years. As her life flashes before her eyes, Sam narrates her transformation. Repetition gives way to difference. History returns, but at the cost of all of Sam’s possible futures. The ultimate revelation is the catastrophic annihilation of the self.
Happy Death Day is at once a sillier and stranger film than Before I Fall. The characters are little more than sketches, a combination of bitchy sorority sisters, generic white guys, and a raving serial killer. So many of the gags have just been dug up from the horror genre graveyard (Never walk alone in a dark tunnel!) that the laughs hit harder than the scares. Tree’s investment in becoming a better person is also never more than skin deep; she signs a petition to “fight global warming” and cushions a fainting fraternity pledge with the help of a pillow. Really changing the world there! Sensing its own minimal intelligence, Happy Death Day goes wild in its third act, hiding a major plot twist behind the mask of Tree’s killer. The final moments, like Groundhog Day, are meteorologically and romantically sunny.
While it remains a disappointment that the “time loop” genre has still not found its radical potential, now is no time to despair. “Time loop” films are infinitely hopeful: They tell us we can always try again tomorrow. Already, this is a genre that teaches characters to read and reread the world. The diegesis becomes a stable text (like any book or film) in order for us to begin interpretation and to look for clues, hidden histories, and alternative futures. But Samantha and Tree are not good enough readers. Their desires are too narrow, their pleasures too personal, for them to realize the potential of freedom. Sam and Tree are caught in the postmodern world that Marxist literary critic Fredric Jameson describes:
“would be better characterize[d] all in terms of History, a History that we cannot imagine except as ending, and whose future seems to be nothing but a monotonous repetition of what is already here. The problem is then how to locate radical difference; how to jumpstart the sense of history so that it begins again to transmit feeble signals of time, of otherness, of change, of Utopia.”
My hope for the “time loop” genre is that we’ll see a movie that jumpstarts the cycle of repetition with a radical ideological commitment, rather than just a personal transformation. Sweeping aside powerful structures of oppression, it is not just Samantha or Tree who are repeating the same day, but many people, even a majority. As an ever-greater number of people wake up to the permanent crisis (living the same day), new forms of social organizations and society would become visible.
Instead, we leave the dark movie theaters to return to our own “time loop” films. Falling asleep, you ask the same question every night: When will the revolution finally begin?