This is the power of movies: "Groundhog Day" is no longer merely the name of a strange and funny little pagan midwinter ritual centered around the prognosticative powers of a Pennsylvanian rodent. It is now also shorthand for being stuck in a rut; worse, for being stuck in a rut that prompts one to reconsider one's whole life.
Time travel movies are almost literally a dime a dozen: from the sublime odyssey of the medieval travelers in modern-day New Zealand in 1988's The Navigator and the slipstream romance of Somewhere in Time to the many temporal journeys of the crew of the Starship Enterprise and the six, count 'em, six chapters of Josh Kirby...Time Warrior, Hollywood has used the expedition to the past or the future to do little more, in many instances, than make jokes about our collective penchant for nostalgia or fear of things to come. There's a much smaller group of films that uses conceits of time travel to explore our relationship with time, not as a remote place, somewhere that can be visited by a lucky few, but as a force to be battled or accommodated or cursed by each and every one of us all the, well, time.
Groundhog Day is rightly celebrated for its warping of time to humorous effect, but it's a lot more profound than the lighthearted romantic comedy it's often described as. The trial of Bill Murray's weatherman as he endures the same day over and over again becomes something akin to a stay in a purgatory in which his own flaws and faults and limitations as a person are continually held up before him. That he ignores that mirror for quite a while only makes the sucker punch all the harder and more surprising when he finally realizes that he does care about something more than his own amusement and that he does care about someone other than himself. The sequence in which his Phil spends turn after turn of the temporal wheel trying to save the old man from dying is one of the more poignant cinematic demonstrations of the human capacity for regret even when it is clearly pointless: there's nothing Phil could have done to save the old man and when he accepts that is when he ceases to see time as an enemy or a limitation but as a gift.
The lack of a scientific rationale for Phil's chronic hysteresis (the correct terminology for the "time loop," as all good Doctor Who fans know) plants Groundhog Day firmly in the realm of fantasy, but the recent independent film Primer may be the second-best look at how stepping outside the normal flow of time can alter our perceptions of our lives and the possibilities open to us...and it is rigorously scientific, at least as speculative fiction goes. Writer/director Shane Carruth stars as part of a team of garage tinkerers who accidentally invent a device that allows for travel a few hours into the past. It may seem upon a first viewing of the film that a good deal of its running time is consumed with the minutiae of avoiding paradoxes as Carruth's Aaron and his buddy, Abe (David Sullivan), set themselves up as day traders with the benefit of their market foresight. But multiple viewings reveal layers of remorse and disappointment driving the characters in ways far more subtle than first meet the eye. By the way, multiple viewings of Primer aren't just necessary if you want to appreciate the film—they are truly enjoyable: you'll want to watch this film over and over again; it's so delicious a brain teaser. Primer is the dystopian flipside of pleasant time-travel fantasies that anyone who enjoys SF has indulged in—we may think we'd make grand voyages to, oh, ancient Egypt or somewhen else exciting and exotic, but how many of us could really resist the temptation to take a few do-overs of the ordinary, everyday events we didn't get quite right, the job interview we blew or the friend we let down?
Not all the films that ask us to reconsider our rapport with the force that is time are so heavy. The Butterfly Effect, starring Ashton Kutcher, is so awful that it's hilarious, a stupendously inept take on the Groundhog Day idea of rerunning our lives, though in this film, it really is an entire life, not merely a single day. A sensitive, expressive actor might have made us feel the horror of the unintended outcomes that occur when we meddle in the timestream, however good our intentions. But the utter lack of emotional content for the temporal disasters that unfold here turns it all ridiculous. Actually intended to be amusing is the season four episode of Stargate SG-1 called "Window of Opportunity," which first aired in 2000. Stargate's take on Groundhog Day—the film is explicitly referenced in the episode, as you would expect from a show that is supremely aware of the SF and pop culture context in which it exists—plays with the audience's expectations for its two time-looping characters by letting them expand their horizons in unexpected ways. But it poignantly doesn't resist letting one of them, Richard Dean Anderson's Jack O'Neill, treat himself on one of his loops to something he'd never be able to get away with it if he had to face the consequences of it.
Fooling around with narrative-time as audiences experience it, as well as how people experience time in life, can twist our appreciation of our ongoing battle with time and its resolute linearity in other ways. Back to the Future II is one of the most extraordinary sequels ever made in how it folds back in on its own story and that of its predecessor. Not only does Michael J. Fox's Marty have to reconsider some of his own acts, which were themselves already a reaction to the damaging nature of his time traveling, but we as spectators are granted yet another perspective on the warring impulses to fix mistakes, or prevent them from happening, or hang back and not make things worse—we have another level of engagement with the story of the first film through our newly godlike view. We time travel with Marty in BTTF2 in a way that we do not in the first film—our own experience of the first film is altered as we revisit the events with a new outlook.
Similarly, thanks to the reverse narrative structure of Memento, we share in the disability that prevents the protagonist from getting pushed around by the flow of time as everyone else is, which is his tragedy and his salvation, if ignorance can be said to save. The film is about time travel only in the most tangential way—the plot doesn't touch on the subject at all. But we, the audience, time travel through its events like the tinkerers of Primer, jumping back in fits and starts, though we, of course, can do little to alter events we can see are heading toward calamity. Run Lola Run also isn't about time travel or time looping, exactly, except that it is: Franke Potente's Lola may not be aware that she's giving herself do-overs and changing outcomes, but she's doing it nevertheless.
Lola is one of the rare instances in which meddling with the timestream doesn't end up in catastrophe. Perhaps we know that wallowing for too long in what-ifs and might-have-beens—at least when it comes to our daily lives and personal relationships, the intimate realm these movies survey—is never healthy, that these films reflect that. Time travel or no, time is still the fire in which we burn, as American poet Delmore Schwartz wrote. When Malcolm MacDowell quotes Schwartz in Star Trek: Generations, it's not a defiant act as he embarks on an attempt to thwart time, but one borne of bitterness, one that knows there's no escape.