From the start of nationwide lockdowns in the face of COVID-19, many a film has been declared ‘The Perfect Pandemic Film.’ In a lot of ways it makes sense. At a time where so many are feeling isolated, as the days blend together in a never ending stream, its natural to look to movies as a method of escape. In the early days it was ‘Contagion’ that helped contextualize the burgeoning threat. Soon after, ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ hit Hulu and showed a tender side of isolation. ‘Hamilton,’ ‘Eurovision,’ ‘Da 5 Bloods’ all brought us together as a film viewing community. Each of these qualities have felt essential in their own moment.
In a way, Max Barbakow’s feature debut ‘Palm Springs’ accomplishes each of these things at once. Starring Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti, the time loop comedy couldn’t have come at a more impactful time. At it’s core the movie is about finding something — or somebody — to break your cynicism and share in the monotonous march of life. To make it a little less mundane.
The film follows Nyles, your typical Samberg-ian goof, a little burned out, disaffected, but still wryly present. He’s just going through the motions attending a wedding with his shallow girlfriend (Meredith Hagner), a woman who seems equally disinterested in him. But hey, Nyles is in the desert on a beautiful November day, he’s going to make the most of it by exerting the absolute least amount of effort. He spends his day crushing beers, lounging in the pool and ultimately attending the wedding in a Hawaiian shirt and swim trunks.
It’s at the reception where ‘Palm Springs’ begins to reveal itself. After Nyles saves maid of honor Sarah (Milioti) from embarrassing herself with a drunken toast, he starts displaying an uncanny ability to anticipate the actions of the other guests. Eventually he’s able to charm Sarah and the two abscond to the surrounding desert for an illicit tryst.
Sarah brings her own set of baggage to her sister’s wedding. None of her family seems to like her all that much, perhaps due to the fact that she, in her own words, “fucks around and drinks too much.” She’s just as cynical as Nyles, if not as woefully apathetic, and the chemistry between them is palpable.
Just as things begin to heat up for Nyles and Sarah the night takes a drastic turn. A rugged man, dressed head to toe in camouflage, pursues Nyles and impales him with multiple arrows. Both he and the mystery man bolt to a mysterious glowing cave. Despite warning her not to, Sarah follows Nyles in. Instantaneously, she wakes up back at the beginning of the day, now stuck in the same loop Nyles has inhabited from the very beginning.
It’s a clever remix on the tried and true formula of time loop movies. To have multiple inhabitants of this temporal paradox opens the story up to so many more dimensions. Nyles has been stuck in time for years and thus his expert knowledge of the dynamics allows ‘Palm Springs’ to explain as it goes, in a way that feels natural and serves the plot. Having each character shackled to November 9th at different times means that we can see the various stages of coping with the idea that your life can neither end nor move forward. In Nyles we get nihilism, in Sarah, a bit of denial and in Roy — the camouflaged hunter played by JK Simmons — a display of rage and ultimately acceptance.
In effect, what ‘Palm Springs’ does, more than any other film in it’s quasi-genre, is take the spotlight off of the sci-fi mechanics and place it squarely onto the characters. It’s a decision that allows for an exploration of monogamy and monotony. Does one lead to the next or is love the escape from that relentless onslaught of repetition.
It’s a clever film, winking at these existential questions. When Sarah wakes up on November 9th for the second time, her moment of realization is backdropped by just the word “FOREVER” in the form of wedding sign. Nyles gets this treatment too, but for him the “FOREVER” moment comes years after his first reawakening, when he realizes he’s lost Sarah for good.
‘Palm Springs’ poses that life is a never ending loop of loneliness, that we’re all alone. But as the film rolls along, it softens. Nyles and Sarah break the funk and ultimately find their way out. Love is the escape from monotony, the fleeting nature of life is what makes it worth living