This article contains Palm Spring spoilers. Our spoiler-free review is here.
Time loop movies are quickly becoming a genre, and we are here for it. The paterfamilias of the concept on screen is of course Harold Ramis’ existential romantic comedy, Groundhog Day, but we’ve seen the concept repeatedly riffed on ever since in everything from big action blockbusters (Source Code, Edge of Tomorrow) to slasher movies and indie thrillers (Happy Death Day and The Endless, respectively). So it was inevitable someone would eventually circle back to using the idea of a perpetual time loop for romance. Luckily the first film to do so is the exceedingly clever Palm Springs.
A millennial rom-com stuck on repeat, Palm Springs slyly deconstructs some potentially problematic aspects about Groundhog Day while offering a smart variation on the concept of love through trial and error on the same day. And director Max Barbakow and screenwriter Andy Siara are aided greatly in this by the general appeal of Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti, who turn two potentially unlikable malcontents into a charming pair of co-dependent adult-children searching for maturity. But how they got into their predicament, and how long they’ve been stuck there is a little more complicated than other time loop movies. So we’re here to unpack the timeline in the movie, and how and why events occur.
The Jurassic Period
Following in Groundhog Day’s tradition, an exact explanation for our temporal glitch in spacetime remains elusive, but we know it is caused by a glowing physics anomaly in a cave located in modern day Southern California. And it’s been there a very long time. Since at least the late Jurassic period around 150 million years ago, to be exact. We can trace that because on one magical drug-fueled night shared by Nyles (Samberg) and Sarah (Milioti), the pair see what looks like several Brachiosauruses in the distance. It’s dark, they’re high, and the movie is hinting that it could just be a hallucination, but nope. In the final frame before the end credits, we see the long-necked dinosaurs again just wandering around.
It’s a fun wink and one that suggests this isn’t some temporary gimmick created by the universe to improve Nyles and Sarah as human beings; they’re trapped in a temporal loop by something that has existed since dinosaurs walked the earth and potentially much longer. It’s fair to wonder if the time loop is as old as the planet, if not the universe, with these gentle giants roaming the same plains for eternity. But you know what? Good for them! When you think about it from the dinos’ perspective, Nyles and Sarah are throwing away the gift of eternity like suckers.
We of course don’t see Nyles’ first day in the time loop—and we may not have seen a moment from even his first million. It is intentionally vague how long he’s been trapped in this time loop, but certainly years and probably decades have passed when the film begins. Refreshingly breaking from the formula established by Groundhog Day, we as viewers have skipped the early sense of exploration, the subsequent gleeful anarchy without consequences that follows, and finally a brief nihilistic despair. Rather we meet Nyles after he’s come to a happy resignation toward his fate. Hey, at least he gets to wear the same shorts and Hawaiian shirt each day and either aid or subvert the wedding he’s attending however he chooses.
We can be pretty sure that it’s been ages since it began because he already knows about everyone in town, from his cheating girlfriend to the deal about the local barflies. In a pinch, he can even call on a memory about the bearded hermit still pining for the woman who took his virginity when he needs to steal the dude’s car. Plus, as he tells Sarah, he first met J.K. Simmons’ Roy in the “early days” when he was still exploring the wedding’s guests and probing them with a sense of curiosity. Hell, he was even still wearing a suit in those before times.
If those early days were actually early years, then many more must have passed since then. Whatever the case may be, we can deduce that on the original day zero, he must’ve come into this desert after there was a morning earthquake which opened up the cave hiding a time paradox. I’d speculate it was at night after the wedding—perhaps he even was on a drunken bender after discovering Misty (Meredith Hagner) was cheating on him? In any event, he entered the cave and I’d guess the next 40 or 50 years remained much the same ever since… just long enough for him to forget what he even did for a job in the way, way back.
While we only discover Roy’s full story late in the movie. Roy is a man who married (or remarried) late in life and started a family even later. But despite all that time to reflect on the transience of existence, he still was missing his early wilder days when he made a fateful drive from Irvine down to Palm Springs, California. He’d regret it.
Seeing Nyles as simply someone stuck in a funk like himself at the bar, Roy laments that marriage is a bottomless pit that, somehow, still has a bottom. He also tries to relive glory days by doing drugs with the much younger man. As a consequence, Nyles introduces the cousin of the groom’s daddy to a cave that both condemns and improves the old guy. Oh sure, Roy periodically lets out his bloodlust every few weeks by driving down to Palm Springs to hunt Nyles for sport and then go Jigsaw on him, but by and large, he spends more time living his suburban life until he can finally appreciate it.
If he met Nyles in the “early days,” then Roy has been trapped in the time loop almost as long as Samberg’s protagonist. So I’d again speculate years or decades have passed. But it’s also been long enough for even this old man to finally grow up and really appreciate the prospect of spending family time with his children and seeing them come of age. Living long enough to regret not paying the kids enough attention, Roy may yet be able to do the whole father “thing” right when he gets out of the time loop and comes back home. Which thanks to the post-credits scene, we know is only a matter of time.
And yet, it’s the introduction of Sarah into the timeline that really sets events in motion for both hapless man-children she’s stuck in this loop with. Indeed, the plot only begins on the particular trip around the loop in which she follows Nyles into the cave.
Making Sarah the catalyst for everything that comes afterward also allows Palm Springs to lightly interrogate aspects of the undeniable classic Groundhog Day. In that movie, Bill Murray’s Phil Connors spends most of his decades (or centuries) in the time loop trying to court his co-worker Rita Hanson (Andie MacDowell) and get her into bed. While he never succeeds until the end of the film, where he isn’t trying and has actually displayed true enlightenment and self-betterment, he is still rewarded with her love in a single day… all while she’s oblivious to the fact he’s studied her like a cross between a stalker and anthropologist for years. He also has slept around the small town they’re trapped in.
Despite Nyles’ protestations to the contrary in Palm Springs, he likewise did sleep with Sarah apparently many times (he uses the word a “thousand”). The reason she can be shocked that he’s only slept with a handful of people at the wedding and local bar is because he viewed her as an easy mark, time and again, when he was feeling horny. He also was using an invisible position of power over the timeline to manipulate her, just as Phil attempted to manipulate Rita, and did successfully manipulate other women in Groundhog Day.
The grossness of this act is brought out into the glaring light of day in Palm Springs with Sarah distancing herself from Nyles for the remainder of the movie’s second act, effectively ghosting him for his creepiness. Her character also challenges the simplicity of Groundhog Day’s ending, because being a better person does not necessarily equate to a “Get Out of Jail Free” card. But then one could argue Sarah isn’t being a better person when she tells her sister on her wedding day that she slept with the groom the night before—and only to please some God she hopes is watching.
But Sarah is also incredibly flawed. As she mentioned, she’s already made plenty of mistakes that felt like she was living on autopilot before the time loop. She married a dude she knew wasn’t right for her, even before he proposed, and still went through with it, hurting both their lives with the brief, ugly marriage that followed. And rather than reach toward actual self-improvement, she self-destructively pursued a one night stand with her sister’s fiancé the night of the rehearsal dinner.
It is her own failings that allow her to eventually see Nyles and their situation clearly…
End of Day
Which is why it’s Sarah who brings an end to the time loop in the movie. Unlike Nyles or Roy, she doesn’t wallow in complacency but attempts to solve a problem, using what is at least months if not years to become a pseudo-expert in quantum physics. Ironically, this is made possible by the fact she slept with the groom the night before. For this reason, she always wakes up early in the day before Nyles does—as she originally awakened to get out of his room without being seen—and leaves the ranch house while Nyles is still fast asleep.
Eventually Sarah realizes that the three-plus second quantum leap they all make to restart their time loop is actually a trip through a literal hole in space time…. one that can theoretically be escaped. While the logic of using C4 to escape said time loop by literally blasting their bodies out of the loop seems dubious at best—wouldn’t they still be blowing themselves up even if it worked?—it creates a narrative excuse to bring the movie’s larger themes to a head.
Most pertinently this includes the sad truth about Nyles: He enjoys the regression of being trapped in this time loop and he’d rather spend eternity reliving the same day and same dippy wedding than face the uncertainty of living his life… or growing up. This is highlighted throughout the movie in the way his preference is to spend eternity in shorts and perpetually drunk with a beer can in hand. While Roy is furious he’s trapped in this loop when he realizes he’ll never see his children grow up, Nyles is cool with never seeing his children or, hell, even his dog again.
In fact, it’s kind of damning to note he never mentioned his dog to his new girlfriend, a woman he claims to love, after spending months or years with her. Such shallowness suggests he really isn’t growing up; he’s just afraid of spending eternity alone. Hence my serious doubts about Nyles and Sarah being a long-term couple.
She previously talked about not wanting to relive the same mistakes again and again, and that was in reference to her marrying a man she knew was wrong for her. Nyles’ desperation was enough to get him to accept he should grow older and not remain in the arrested development many millennials are accused of embracing, but it was a reluctant decision. Methinks when she is outside the loop and has the “millions of other options” of men besides Nyles out there… this ain’t going to last for an eternity.