There is no way this winter is ever going to end, as long as this groundhog keeps seeing his shadow. I don’t see any other way out. He’s got to be stopped. And I have to stop him. – Phil Connors
Among the various subgenres that encompass the range of science fiction and fantasy, the one I enjoy the most may be time travel. I have always been entranced with the idea of time travel (and I imagine most sci-fi geeks with a deep love of history might share that passion), to the point of even taking a college class on the subject.
While there are many different kinds of time travel films, like the kind that involve traveling back to other eras (Timeline, A Kid in King Arthur’s Court), and man out of time stories (Les Visiteurs, The Time Machine), the best kind has a character reflecting on his or her own personal history, like Marty McFly from Back to the Future or the guys from Primer.
A slightly different take on time travel is Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day. Specifically, it is a time loop film (itself a subgenre of time travel). As a brief summary, Bill Murray plays Pittsburgh weatherman, Phil Connors, stuck in Punxsutawney for Groundhog’s Day, an event he hates covering. He, and only he, begins to relive this hated day over and over again.
First, in something slightly unusual for a time travel film, how or why Phil is reliving the same day over and over is never explained, and really, neither is why he is able to break out of the loop. Taken as hard science fiction, this would be completely unacceptable, but it definitely serves the story because all of the focus is on Phil rather than the fantastical events itself.
Once Phil begins to realize he is living the same day over again, he goes through several phases of behavior. First, he simply behaves recklessly, and seems to enjoy just causing mischief, relieved to not be bound by the normal societal consequences of spying, seducing, and stealing. Then he becomes despondent, and tries repeatedly to end the loop by killing himself.
After explaining the situation to Rita, his producer (who he also has feelings for), played by the always excellent Andie MacDowell, she suggests he take advantage of the situation by improving himself. Finding new inspiration in this, he not only starts to really get to know her, but also plays piano, speaks French, and ice sculpts. More importantly, he also starts to think about more than just himself, helping many of the locals with their problems, like Ned Ryerson (played perfectly by Stephen Tobolowsky). Eventually, he figures out how to demonstrate to Rita that he is a changed man, and the loop is broken.
The tone of the film is similar to Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, and without Murray’s performance and Ramis’ direction, this easily could have been a much darker film at its core, and not be considered one of the best comedies of all time. I think the key to this is definitely Murray, using what Alison Willmore (formerly of the late, great, IFC News podcast) calls his “snarky zen” persona to maximum effect. Indeed, this film may be considered a turning point in the career of Mr. Murray, showing his turn from 80s madcap comedies like What About Bob? to more serious fare like Rushmore and Lost in Translation.
Another interesting aspect of this film is that it has widespread acclaim by spiritual leaders of many faiths, most notably Buddhists and Catholics, who see it as demonstrating how living a good life in the present can give rewards tomorrow (the afterlife). The military has also seen widespread adaptation of the film’s title to refer to any monotonous situation.
Much speculation has been given by fans of the film as to how long Phil is stuck repeating February 2nd. Harold Ramis has speculated anywhere between 10 and 10,000 years. Recently, Ramis has stated 30-40 years based on Phil’s acquired skills taking about 10 years to get good at each. Of these 42 are shown in the film.
Fittingly, the cable channel Encore is playing the film on a 24 hour loop today. It is also available for viewing on Netflix Instant, so if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go watch it. Or did I do that yesterday?
*The poster above is by the artist Brandon Schaefer. Click the image above to see more from the same series, or check out his Flickr here.