Existential Despair and Time Loops – 90s Kids Scifi Comes of Middle Age

“I know the past is the past/ Then again, the present’s nothing without it/ I feel fine, don’t even feel sad about it.”

Ezra Furman, Love You So Bad

In 1977, a maintenance worker and father of three in Muncie, Indiana interrupts his family meal to build a tower of mashed potatoes on his dinner plate. Roy, played by Richard Dreyfuss, doesn’t know exactly what he’s building or why, and his odd behavior follows a recent run-in with what could only be reasonably described as an unidentified flying object. His family looks on, afraid and confused as the man they once knew is transformed into a stranger under the urgency of his new obsession.

That scene from Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind became instantly iconic for taking something as wholesome and American as sitting down for a family dinner of mashed potatoes, and then violently upending it with the entrance of a disturbing, unknown force. Roy’s powerlessness becomes evident as the movie goes on – he doesn’t understand why he’s acting so strangely, but he’s compelled to forge ahead, to doggedly pursue the mystery of the strange lights he saw that fateful night. His fixation forces him to leave everything behind – his family, his job, his small town life – as he struggles to cope with his new reality. From an outside perspective, his behavior looks like a rapid decline in mental health, but to him, his world is expanding in ways he never knew possible.

Close Encounters is typical of early Spielberg; its protagonist a dad in his mid 30s, the stability of his life with his nuclear family rocked by supernatural forces. More than 40 years later, 2020 has given us two films that address similar upheavals in the lives of regular people – Horse Girl, directed by Jeff Baena, and Max Barbakow’s Palm Springs. The characters in these movies don’t have spouses, kids and mortgages to leave behind – they have roommates, families they mostly try to avoid and peak TV to keep them company at night. Because their 30s don’t have the typical markers of adulthood, they seem younger (actually Allison Brie, the lead actress in Horse Girl, is 7 years older than Dreyfuss when he played Roy), and more lost to begin with. Yet, though they’re missing the stability and obligations of that earlier generation of 30-somethings, the scifi phenomena they encounter still upend their worlds completely. The result is they are forced to question everything they think they know, just as Roy was, which makes these movies almost as thrilling to watch as that classic 1970s throwback.

In Horse Girl, eerie visions plague Allison Brie’s Sarah, but they don’t pull her away from responsibilities like taking care of a young family – her life is instead ruled by a continued enchantment with her childhood hobbies and nights binging a melodramatic TV show. She has a quirky job at a craft store, and some interest in a social life and dating, but approaches everything with a passive naivety that suggests she wont get far in making the kind of changes that lead to personal or professional growth. She’s the type of sweet but aimless soul you can imagine staying in the same place, binging the same shows, following the same routine a month, a year, a decade from now.

Until changes start happening to her: as the film reveals her family history of mental illness, we also see her start acting strangely – one night she sleepwalks to her kitchen, the next day she loses hours of time and wakes up on a deserted street corner. Her inexplicable behavior causes her to frantically delve into the online world of conspiracy theories (2020s version of a tower of mashed potatoes) looking for answers. The cryptic information she uncovers there, paired with her very real seeming visions, only fuel even stranger behavior, miring her in a vicious cycle of paranoia and confusion.

As in Close Encounters, the sense of something being off starts out at a low hum but quickly increases to a shrill alarm. Sarah’s behavior begins to worry the few people she’s close to (her boss, her roommate, a new romantic interest), but they’re too late or too distant to reach her. Like Roy with his family, she has to leave them behind as she labors to understand how her past and future are coming together. The mysteries of her seemingly mundane life bubble to the surface in various totems – a picture of her grandmother, her childhood horse that she adores but can no longer afford to keep – and these are the puzzle pieces viewers have to hold on to as the movie delves into the truly bizarre. Luckily Horse Girl is also anchored by Allison Brie’s fearless performance – her Sarah captures the melancholy and magic of a lonely woman doing her best to heed the call of a universe that might be bigger and more connected than she ever imagined.

Whereas the mysteries at the heart of Horse Girl take a while to unwind (no spoilers here), in Palm Springs the disgruntled characters learn definitively and early on what’s disrupted their lives – “It’s one of those infinite timeline situations you might’ve heard about” Andy Samberg’s Nyles quips in the movie’s opening minutes. You can bet he’s seen Happy Death Day, Edge of Tomorrow, Groundhog Day ad infinitum, and Palm Springs knows its viewers probably have too. So the idea of waking up over and over again stuck in the same day is one we all already get – though perhaps never before has the setting been so idyllic. It’s the day of a chic and eventful wedding in Palm Springs, Southern California, which means endless drinks, tacos and pool time with a gorgeous desert backdrop. Never mind that Nyles is surrounded by the couple’s annoying family and asshole friends (your typical wedding guests), or that he’s there with a girlfriend he doesn’t really seem to care about, or that he’s stranded there for all eternity, with no end in sight! With its bordering on nihilistic humor and cheeky dance sequences, Palm Springs seems to be asking – if you were trapped in the same day, but also in paradise, would the endless day drinking and goofing off be enough to make you not miss the rest of your existence?

The answer turns out to be a big “no” from Nyles’s new companion in the time loop, sister of the bride and resident family fuck up, Sarah, played by Cristin Milioti. Sarah throws a big wrench in Nyles’s plan to live out his days trying new drugs and dance moves with zero consequences, and she does it by caring. She cares enough to follow an injured Nyles into the timey-wimey cave he stumbles into, and that’s how she gets accidentally dragged into reliving one of the worst days of her life (more spoilers I won’t reveal) over and over. Nyles’s main characteristic, both in his previous life and in this strange new one, seems to be his apathy – he doesn’t care that his girlfriend is cheating on him, he doesn’t care that he doesn’t like most of the people he’s surrounded himself with, and not caring is how he makes peace with the idea of not moving forward with his life. By the time Sarah joins him, he’s comfy in his loop, satisfied to sit back with his first beer of the morning and let the day’s hijinks unfold with no tomorrow in sight.

Sarah, whose own past is full of mistakes and missed chances, still can’t give up on the future that easily. Her arrival introduces a new element to Nyles’s easygoing purgatory and thank goodness it does, since Cristin Milioti’s jumpy energy makes Sarah a more interesting character to follow than Sandberg’s super laidback and super silly Nyles. After a few attempts to drink herself into complacency with her current situation, that annoying trait of “caring about things” kicks in again. It’s caring that causes her to become obsessed with figuring out why running into a cave in the desert has left her endlessly stuck in November 9th. And like Roy and Allison Brie’s Sarah before her, that push to answer the seemingly impenetrable questions at the heart of the universe leads her to a deeper understanding of what might give meaning to her own life. An understanding that all these characters decide is worth the fight, even if it means fewer lazy afternoons on a pool float.

Horse Girl is currently streaming on Netflix.

Palm Springs is currently streaming on Hulu.

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