“Why are men?” Seems like a provocative question, but it’s an incredibly sane answer to John Ridley’s science fiction romance Needle in a timestack. The film introduces time travel into a world, but promptly rejects it in an attempt to save previous lives, create world peace, or stop a virus that is ending humanity. (Who cares about other peopleInstead, Ridley offers a spiritual follower to stories like The wife of the time traveler and Over time, in which time travel is used to encourage sentimental notions about soul mates, monogamy, and fate.
Granted, this is a noticeable change from the doom and darkness normally associated with time travel, like in the Terminator franchise. The war of tomorrow, or 12 monkeys. but Needle in a timestack lacks the inner world structure necessary to realize his heartbreaking intentions, and the result is a film that inadvertently affirms that men who obsessively refuse to leave women alone never bring any good.
An adaptation of a decade-old short story by Robert Silverberg (recently reprinted in the anthology) The time traveler’s almanac, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer), Needle in a timestack was adapted and directed by Ridley, who won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for 12 years a slave. This is Ridley’s first foray into science fiction after a career largely spent in the theater (three Kings, Ben Hurwho have favourited TV series anthology American crime) and comedy (Martin, The Prince of Bel-Air, Barbershop: the series). Perhaps that is why the film lacks so many genre details that would make this world seem real.
It is impossible to decipher how time travel works in Needle in a timestack. Rich people can easily time travel, but they are not supposed to change the past because they are being punished by temporary cops. But this is fully a story about someone who selfishly changes the past and there is no impact at all! If this is supposed to be a comment on the rich who act by different rules than everyone else, the film doesn’t make that clear – the lack of accountability feels more like a dropped plot point. But what’s even more detrimental to the movie is the confusing way Ridley deals with the effects of time travel.
In the near future, architect Nick (Hamilton and One night in Miami Star Leslie Odom Jr.) and photographer Janine (Bad times at El Royale Breakout star Cynthia Erivo) are happily married. “If I didn’t know you, would I still fall in love with you?” Nick wonders while watching Janine at a dinner party. He clearly thinks he would. But Nick is also obsessively worried about Janine’s ex-husband, the wealthy Tommy (Orlando Bloom), who tried time travel three times to change the past and get Janine back.
Whenever a “time difference” occurs, which Ridley imagines as a wavelike rush of air that crashes over and through people, Nick is consumed with fear – and then with anger when he learns that Janine has been secretly dating Tommy since their divorce Has. He suspects that she is hiding more from him. Meanwhile, Tommy hires Nick’s ex Alex (Freida Pinto) to help him change her whole life. Once these four were friends, but now they are trying to reverse and untangle each other’s decisions.
In some scenes “time shifts” or “phases” cause far-reaching changes for everyone in the present, in others the effects are only temporary or affect only one person. What causes these differences? Who controls this technology? How is it regulated? How does this near-future version of the United States have easily accessible time travel, but no clear way of protecting memories other than by printing photos, then visiting a store in a mall to have an employee scan it and the data in a vault in the cloud ? (Plus, are there malls still in this blurry science fiction future? Really?)
These questions may sound fussy, but they stand out because the film’s inconsistencies seriously complicate the romantic relationships that the story is supposed to be at the center of. The four main characters are clearly at the center of Ridley’s narrative, and he nudges them against each other in different ways to explore the suspicions, regrets, fantasies, and desires that come with marriage.
But Janine and Alex are so little sketched that they lack the same weight in this quad. So Needle in a timestack becomes just a boring tale of two insecure guys involved in a little tug-of-war for the women in their lives. Cinematic science fiction can and should be populated with smaller, intimate stories to offset the genre’s endless space opera epics and dystopian blockbusters, however Needle in a timestack is a hollow attempt to balance personal emotional interests with a conceptual science fiction idea.
After Ridley introduces these characters, he quickly divides them into different pairs so it is up to the actors to give his most self-serious script the emotional courage he is so desperate to achieve. The results are mixed from scene to scene. The problem is the gap between what the movie thinks these characters are and how their actions actually come across. As Nick, Odom is believably tormented and protective of his wife, but his clear lack of respect for Janine’s agency and decisions is not the loving gesture the film suggests.
Bloom plays Tommy on a single smug register, and although he perfects the art of having a beatable face, he fails to overcome injured fragility Needle in a timestack Claims later in the film. (Unfortunately, there’s no timeline of Nick and Tommy falling in love with each other with all their unresolved tension.) And Pinto and Erivo are both constrained by the flatness of their characters and the lack of attention the film pays to them she want. What does Alex miss about Nick? What made Janine fall in love with Tommy? Where are the details of these women’s lives? Whatever vibrancy the normally charismatic Erivo and Pinto were able to offer is flattened by their positioning in this story as objects to be swapped back and forth between them and men. Dialogues like “Every time we fall in love we steal just one person from someone else” make this ridiculous point particularly clear.
Needle in a timestack repeats over and over again that some love should be easy, no matter how the world works around them. (Several characters solemnly intone the line, “Love is drawn in the shape of a circle.”) Certainly a common trope of time travel stories is that nothing someone does in the past can ever completely change the present. But Ridley’s refusal to deal meaningfully with this ideological stance, and his apparent inability to see that his male protagonists are actually exhausting, makes one Needle in a timestack hard to get lost in.
Needle in a timestack debuts in limited theatrical versions and for digital and on-demand rentals starting October 15, with a Blu-ray and DVD release on October 19.