This year we’ve seen three, count ‘em, THREE movies released in either theaters or Netflix that utilize what’s called the time loop or “Groundhog Day” effect as characters relive the same day or timespan over and over again as a major plot devise of the movie. The third American film of this year to utilize such a plot devise, “Happy Death Day”, hits theaters this weekend and that, along with the other two films that followed this format “Before I Fall” and “Naked”, inspired me to take a look at the best films that utilized this trope. So without further or do it’s time to get our déjà vu on. Here are my picks for the Top 10 Time Loop Films.
For this list I looked at movies that utilized the time loop trope, otherwise known as the “Groundhog Day” effect. This plot devise sees a character reliving the same day or timeline over and over again, usually in an attempt to get something right. To qualify the trope has to be prominent throughout the film. The time loop must be significant to the plot as a whole or it won’t count.
To be very specific, I’m not talking time travel films in general even if the plot impacts the future. So movies like “Back to the Future”, “Looper”, or “X-Men: Days of Future Past” are for other lists focusing on time travel films more than the time loop concept. Purposeful time travel CAN be a part of the film as long as it involves a loop of a specific period of time over and over again trying to change the outcome. I rated these films based on their use of the trope and how effectively it pulled off the presentation and incorporation of time loops into the plot.
It’s also important to differentiate between a time loop and a causal loop. Causal loops are more like “The Butterfly Effect” and can be controlled by the individual involved whereas time loops are ever repeating units of time until some goal is met. At times they can be one in the same, but many causal loops movies will not be on this list.
Obviously I will discuss the plot of some of these films so SPOILER ALERT. I’m also bending my usual rules and including films that were not theatrically released for this list. The trope is common, but not that common.
What’s your favorite time loop film? Let me know in the comments below and maybe “Happy Death Day” will be good enough to add to this list in the future. You can judge for yourself when it hits theaters this weekend.
A personal favorite of mine from my youth that I honestly forgot all about until I researched for this list, “Retroactive” sees a woman named Karen, played by Kylie Travis, hitch a ride with a man and his abusive wife who are in the possession of stolen computer chips. Events lead to chaos and eventually Karen comes across a nearby laboratory where a scientist has invested a time machine. Karen uses the machine to go back in time to repeat the events of the day for a different outcome, but fails to make things any better. The movie revolves around her multiple attempts to resolve the situation as she goes back in time again and again in a self-induced time loop. “Retroactive” is an interesting time loop film because it’s an extremely rare case where the subject of the film actually wants to be in the loop. It has all the makings of a normal time loop story, but with the added context that Karen wants to willingly relive the moment to try and save everyone involved. While she fails time and time again it’s an enjoyable ride to see the many ways she tries to overcome fate and even its conclusion leaves to question whether or not the events of the day are destined, or if the people she got involved with were just so bad there was never any hope of saving them from the start.
“Repeaters” in an interesting look at how a time loop scenario could work out in the hands of the wrong people. A group of drug addicts in recovery are shocked by lightning, waking up to relive the same day over and over again. What ensues is an adventure into redemption and recklessness as the three addicts relive the ninth step of their recovery program over and over after they fail to apologize to those they wronged. At first they see the loop as a blessing in disguise, using it to wrong others and to perform less-than-tolerable acts without consequences. However the story eventually evolves as one of the three wants to continue to use the time loop for personal gain while the other two learn an important lesson about redemption and recovery. While panned by critics and made on a shoestring budget “Repeaters” offers a unique take on the trope, showing us what it would be like if those with questionable morals had the ability to relive the same moment without consequences for their actions.
One of the more unique films on this list, “Haunter” explores the ghost of a woman who was murdered on her 16th birthday and is destined to relive the same day over and over again for eternity. Fortunately for our main character, Lisa, she becomes conscious of her situation and discovers she can communicate with ghosts from different timelines eventually setting in motion a mystery thriller as Lisa tries to unravel the circumstances of her death and free herself and others from their eternities reliving their own dooms over and over. A unique and supernatural take on the time loop concept, “Haunter” may not lean as heavily on the time loop trope as other films on this list but that doesn’t make it any less effective as the loop is used as a tool to represent a sort of purgatory, giving the spirits the opportunity to solve their own murders in order to earn their place in the afterlife.
A futuristic take on time loops, this film follows engineer Renton and his girlfriend Hannah as they are targeted by masked men looking to steal the ARQ, a perpetual motion machine that the two are hiding that holds the key to a new energy source. As the two try to escape, their ventures fail but the ARQ allows them to relive the day over and over again to unravel the mystery behind who is targeting them and why. An underrated apocalyptic interpretation of the time loop devise “ARQ” offers something a little unique, taking aspects of other films later to be featured on this list and presenting them in a smooth and enjoyable manner all on a shoestring budget and with a limited setting. The film was also praised for its ability to effectively resolve its paradoxes caused by the time loops, something that often leads to issues for any movie involving time travel. Smooth, enjoyable, and well made, “ARQ” is a surprisingly good use of clichés and tropes that manages to find its own footing and utilize the time loop concept quite well.
6. Run Lola Run
A German thriller film, “Run Lola Run” is among the most unique entries on this list as it involves only three repetitions of the same events as the titular character Lola is given 20 minutes to procure and deliver a large sum of money to her boyfriend before a crime boss kills him. What makes this a unique film is that it’s never explicitly stated that these are three versions of the repeated events or if they are simply three possibilities based on Lola’s actions. Visual tricks are used to show when Lola veers off from one run’s course to a new one and flash-forwards show us how the lives of those she encounters are changed by her actions. Each run is considered an “episode” and while they follow the same path, they do not intertwine leaving us with three runs happening at the same time with different outcomes in an overlapping time loop, albeit one that may be more symbolic than literal. Still it’s a fascinating take on the concept and makes for an artistic and exhilarating film that plays out (mostly) in real time with each run spanning about 20 minutes of the film’s overall 80 minute run time.
5. Source Code
Like “Retroactive”, “Source Code” revolves around a self-inflicted time loop picking up after an explosion has already caused immense destruction. A melding of the time loop and causal loop concepts, this film sees a U.S. Army Captain, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, become part of an experiment that sends him back to just before the bomb goes off to try and learn the culprits identity before a second attack takes place. The captain fails over and over again, trying different methods of solving the mystery and preventing the destruction as the time loop continues to result in his death and/or the train’s explosion. This is among the more critically acclaimed movies on this list and is a smooth, well-crafted blend of science fiction and action that shows how a time loop can be utilized for a more positive purpose. It delves into the frustration of trying to set things right when given multiple opportunities to resolve the situation. Our hero is likable, the circumstances are is dire, and the frustration feels real as the movie’s adrenaline-charged story unfolds making for a time loop adventure well beyond its time.
4. Before I Fall
The newest entry on this list, I’ve been very open this year about my enjoyment of this surprisingly deep film. While many have criticized this 2017 teen drama as a rehash of another big film to come later on this list, “Before I Fall” takes the time loop trope and applies it to a high schooler who awakens one morning as a pompous popular girl and finds herself reliving the same day over and over again trying to figure out why she is stuck in the loop. Along the way she realizes the pain she has caused others with her personality and ego and experiences stages of grief as she fails time and time again to escape the loop. Once she does discover her purpose however, and how her past actions tied into that mission, she must come to terms with how to resolve the situation once and for all. Well-acted and containing some deep morals for younger audiences to grasp on to, this time loop tale certainly has something to say and is meant to be a cautionary tale to its core viewers that one’s actions can lead to a series of events with horrible consequences, and not just within a time loop. We learn, along with the story’s central character, that who she was and who she pretended to be may have made her feel good in the moment, but the lasting effects caused more harm than she realized. In real life we never get the chance to fully understand how our actions impact those around us, but this impressive use of the time loop trope is an eye opener everyone young and old should see and appreciate.
You’d think that horror would be a perfect fit for the time loop plot device, but surprisingly it’s used very rarely in the genre. Before “Happy Death Day” there was one horror gem that made good use of the concept, “Triangle”, a play on the concept of the Bermuda Triangle and the many layers of the movie’s own time loop that focuses on Jess, a young woman who goes on a boating trip with a few friends when a storm approaches and their boat picks up a distress signal. After their vessel capsizes they find themselves aboard a seemingly abandoned cruise liner where it appears someone is stalking them. Jess soon realizes SHE is the stalker as she begins to relive the moment of her and her friends arrival on the ship from different perspectives, becoming trapped in a time loop she tries to escape through more violent means and sending messages to herself as the loop resets. It’s a mind bender of a movie that doesn’t explicitly state the events are happening within the Bermuda Triangle, but the famous themes of the mysterious location are all present as Jess is forced to relive killing her own friends and, unsuccessfully, trying to escape the loop over and over and over again. Even when she thinks she has won, she finds out it’s all part of the plan in an endless hell of horror that we, the audience, get to enjoy. “Triangle” is original, well thought out, and manages to dodge the issue of paradoxes by adding a supernatural element to the whole experience leaving us just as lost, confused, and in many cases terrified as the film’s main character. Definitely a time loop film worth a watch.
2. Edge of Tomorrow
You knew it was going to be this one or a certain other film at the top spot, so before I reveal the likely obvious top choice let me praise a modern classic, “Edge of Tomorrow”. Called “Live.Die.Repeat” in some regions, the Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt led science fiction picture sees Cruise as Major Bill Cage who is unwillingly sent into battle with a team of mech-suit wearing warriors fighting off an alien invasion. While in battle Cage is doused with the blood of one of the alien Mimics sending him back to the beginning of the day. It turns out Cage has inherited the power of the aliens to reset time, which has given the species an edge in their battle against humanity. Cage teams up with Blunt’s Sergeant Vrataski, who previously inherited the ability but lost it after a blood transplant, to practice his skills day after day, repeating the events of the battle over and over again as his death with each try resets him back to the beginning to try again. “Edge of Tomorrow” is action packed and well thought out, avoiding (for the most part) the effect of paradoxes on the story and introducing the time loop concept in a unique way that was not only significant to the plot, but also served as a sort of “super human” power that made it both a blessing and a curse for Cage. Critically praised and an audience favorite that earned $370.5 million at the box office, “Edge of Tomorrow” is the most successful film on this list but couldn’t top my number one choice in terms of pure iconic status.
1. Groundhog Day
How could any other film be #1? This film literally defined the trope with the time loop concept literally being called the “Groundhog Day Effect” since this movie made the concept a popular tool for filmmakers in the early 90s. While you could bring up the argument that the film borrowed the theme from the much-loved Richard Lupaff short story “12:01”, a work that was adapted into a celebrated short film and truly made the trope a popular storytelling tool in most mediums, “Groundhog Day” was a trendsetter and is directly responsible for inspiring nearly every film on this list. Following a self-centered newsman named Phil, played by Bill Murray, who is covering the Groundhog Day ceremonies in Punxsutawney (yes Phil shares the name with the famous groundhog in some heavy handed writing), “Groundhog Day” sees Phil mysteriously trapped in a time loop where he relives the same exact day over and over and over until he finally gets it right. During this time he undergoes the stages of grief including performing risky acts, committing suicide, and eventually coming to grips with his demons and transforming into a better person. These tropes sound familiar right? That’s because “Groundhog Day” set the standard for what time loop movies could and would become. Today it’s still a cult classic and is one of the most iconic films in Bill Murray’s celebrated filmography. It may be cliché and the quality may not hold up to many on this list in the grand scheme of things, but you can’t deny its iconic status. I mean the entire trope is named after this film. That in itself earns it the right to be #1 here.