Movie Drinking Game #2: The Groundhog Effect

Drink every time a protagonist repeats the same routine with a different result.

On paper it seems like a terrible idea to have your protagonist relive the same day over and over. How could that possibly be interesting or exciting? But Groundhog Day came along and proved us wrong. In fact, there’s a perverse pleasure in watching someone relive the same events, especially once they begin to realize what’s going on, and on the heels of that realization, they find out they can’t do anything to stop it. Or can they? For many of the characters who encounter this plot device, the repeating day proves to have symbolic value, like a puzzle to be solved. Why this day? What is so significant about this day, and how can they end the infinite time loop?

Although Groundhog Day wasn’t the first film to feature an endlessly repeating day (the British anthology film Dead of Night predates it by nearly fifty years), it is the film we have come to associate with the trope. I could go on forever about what makes Groundhog Day great, but with regard to the time loop in particular, what’s striking is how incredibly ordinary that repeating day is. It’s full of minor discomforts: Phil (Bill Murray) is away from home at a cheesy B&B, the weather is brutal, his job is banal, and his coworkers are annoying. But there’s nothing remarkable about it; he ignores and breezes over the first iteration of this day. This makes it all the more of a head-scratcher when his boringly unpleasant day begins to repeat itself. What could possibly be special about Groundhog Day? The celebration he’s covering is basically the only one in the whole country; no one else really cares about it as a holiday. It’s almost like a parody of all the holiday-related Hallmark channel movies; what’s cute and romantic on Christmas starts to seem silly when you transfer it to a more quotidian holiday. But that is, in fact, how Phil finally breaks out of his time loop: he learns to treat his day with all the reverence and wonder of a lovestruck protagonist in a Hallmark Christmas movie. His transformation is about learning to be in the moment and appreciate beauty where he can find it. There are no shortcuts to this day, or to his romance with Rita (Andie MacDowell); he has to let things unfold at their own speed.

Edge of Tomorrow is another great iteration of the Groundhog Day trope. Tom Cruise’s character Cage gets killed in an alien invasion and finds himself reliving the same day over and over, always dying at the hands of a “Mimic” alien. What I love about this version of the time loop device is that it’s actually part of the invading aliens’ strategy: they can “reset” after they’re killed, an ability Cage accidentally absorbs when he kills the alien who’s attacking him. This is why the Mimics have been so unstoppable in battle, and now Cage has to use it against them to save humanity. His survival is inextricably tied up with repelling the invasion and ending the time loop. The time loop functions like a secret weapon, one that Cage acquires purely by accident; now that he has the ability to go back and relive the same day over and over, everything falls to him, but first he has to spend a bunch of those endlessly repeating days training, since prior to this he’s never seen a day of combat.

The recent horror film Happy Death Day combines the Groundhog Day trope with one that I always think of as the D.O.A. trope, the one where the protagonist is about to die and has to find out who murdered them (in this case, the protagonist has been dosed with a slow-acting poison). A college student named Tree (Jessica Rothe) gets murdered on her birthday and keeps waking up that same morning in the bed of the boy she went home with the night before. She has to solve her own murder in order to end the time loop, but unlike the heroes of Groundhog Day and Edge of Tomorrow, she doesn’t have an infinite number of lives to lose. Every time she dies and wakes up again, she sustains more and more damage from her injuries inflicted in the previous life, which makes sense; if she can take the knowledge she gains from her previous lives into the next one, it follows that the damage would also take a toll on her body. This raises the stakes in a really satisfying way. Tree has an added incentive to pay extra-close attention to what’s going on around her even though she knows everything she’s going to experience by heart: she has to look beyond the obvious if she’s going to figure out who killed her. In the process, she also learns she has not been the most pleasant person to be around and starts to gradually change her ways. This is partly motivated by her need to work with other people to figure out who her killer is, but also by her realization that a lot of people around her might have had a good reason to want her dead. She has to make a selfless choice when someone she cares about is killed and she then gets the drop on the killer; she realizes that if she doesn’t die, her day won’t repeat and her friend will stay dead.

Maybe the reason this trope is so versatile is the wide variety of moral and ethical conundrums it presents. For Phil in Groundhog Day, it’s as simple as learning to have the sort of day he would want to relive over and over, which ultimately becomes a question of what it means to be happy. For Cage in Edge of Tomorrow, it’s more about accepting the responsibility of becoming humanity’s savior and not giving up on himself even when the task ahead of him seems insurmountable. And Tree in Happy Death Day is faced with the surprisingly difficult task of being honest with herself about the life she’s lived so far and about her relationships with other people, looking past the surface to see what’s going on underneath. For all three, the question they have to answer is one of the most basic challenges of being a human: what they will do with the time they’re given.

Ashley Wells is a film writer at Outtake by Tribeca Shortlist. You can find her on Twitter and Letterboxd.

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