Needle in a Timestack (2021)


Sure seems like there’s a trend of me watching a non-horror movie during October–a month I just devote to nothing but horror films–that makes me go, “Oh, I have to talk about this.” Last year was Are We Not Cats, and this year it’s the amazingly titled Needle in a Timestack. Teams of people read that name and thought, “This is perfectly acceptable”? Remarkable. Anyway, it’s a movie about time travel and it’s… certainly something.

Ready for the premise? You’re not, but here we go anyway! Time travel exists. It’s mostly reserved for the rich, but average people can apparently save up all their money in order to jump back in time. How does it work? Fuck if I know. You drink a clear liquid and relax on a futon while a voice counts backwards for you, but you end up physically back in time instead of just being hypnotized. Ideally you pick a time to visit where your past self isn’t around, because it is possible–but discouraged–to visit yourself. Changing the timeline itself is discouraged, but sure doesn’t seem like anyone enforces that. In fact, changes to the timeline–giant, disorientating waves of energy washing over the area if not the entire world–happen so often that it’s standard operating procedure to call your loved ones after a wave hits to make sure all the relevant details are correct before the energy wears off or something and you forget your history just got changed. So what kind of changes can and apparently do happen? WELL…

The story follow Nick (Mr. Leslie Odom Jr., AKA Aaron Burr from Hamilton) and his wife Janine (Cynthia Erivo). They lead a happy life, but Nick is paranoid that every time-wave that hits them is the result of his old friend Tommy (Orlando Bloom) trying to fuck with their lives. See, Tommy used to be married to Janine, but they divorced and she married Nick, something Tommy seems to believe is Nick’s fault. Nick has every right to be paranoid as it’s confirmed that Tommy is actively fucking with their lives. His plans seem to work when a big time wave hits and Nick wakes up married to Alex (Freida Pinto), a girl he previously had dated and broken up with ages ago. And Tommy’s married to Janine, having ensured that she never met Nick. Nick eventually mostly forgets his previous life, but something still nags at the back of his head. A recovered memory fragment–don’t worry, I’ll get to that–makes him think he was with someone before the time wave, so he goes back in his own timeline to breakup with Alex. Nick tells past-Tommy that he should hook up with Alex, and the moment apparently sticks because Nick wakes up sad and alone while Tommy is married to Alex. Sure, this is exactly what he wanted, but Nick is now horribly depressed to the point that I thought the movie might actually involve a suicide attempt. But before we get that dark, at one of Tommy’s parties–Nick’s jaunt to the past has made Tommy less of an asshole, apparently–Nick and Janine lock eyes, seemingly remembering something. Then the credits roll because of course that’s how this ends.

I have a story in my head that involves time travel that works in pretty atypical ways, so I’m not opposed to weird time travel stories. But god damn, I do not understand how it works here. I’m presuming that the time waves happen when you return to the present after changing the past, unless future people are coming to what Nick views as the present and changing stuff (but that’s never implied). It’s such a commonplace thing, but it’s crazy that there’s no enforcement of the rules. And I get it–the rich get to break the rules and the rest of the common people just have to live with the consequences. A commentary on our society. But things fall apart when you try to apply that to time travel! And why did Nick seem resistant to timeline changes? One of Tommy’s early time shenanigans resulted in Nick going from having a dog to having a cat, but he sure seemed to remember that dog longer than everyone else, well past the point where your memories from before are supposed to disappear. In the timeline where Nick wasn’t married to Janine, she did in fact call him immediately after the shift, confirming that she momentarily remembered him. So why not write anything down? Nick literally slid a physical note under the door to his past self, so that’s one piece of technology that still works. And there are services that back up your memories? How the hell does that even work?! Not well, since out of all of Nick’s memories of the life with Janine, they could only recover a second-long clip of Janine completely out of focus. There are just so many weird rules for this version of time travel, which is especially weird since the entire story happens because no one is following them. Even Nick’s sister, Zoe (Jadyn Wong) goes back in time to save her super-platonic-not-at-all-queer-coded best female friend who doesn’t speak any English from dying! There are no rules! No one to enforce them! No one to stop me from traveling to 1568 and fucking King James VI and I! I’m now the Duke of Buckingham!

That joke was brought to you by three quarters of British History at my community college. Anyway, Needle in a Timestack is just as weird and confusing as its title would suggest.

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