Life can change in an instant, to use the cliche. And movies about time travel allow us to take this concept to an extreme, examining the points that could alter everything and give us the ultimate wish-fulfillment: the chance to traverse the road not taken, whether personal or political.
John Ridley, the writer and director of the sci-fi drama Needle in a Timestack (out October 15), may tread some of that familiar ground. But to further paraphrase the poet, he takes the road less traveled by, and that does indeed make all the difference. Good thing, because otherwise, Needle would be something of a retread.
With some exceptions, stories about time travel almost seem epic by default, given how much opportunity there is to toy with the worlds we create and the conventions of storytelling itself. But Ridley would instead ditch the otherworldly implications and give us a near future where time travel has become a part of everyday life. In Needle, however, it’s sort of like what space travel is already becoming, the latest playground for the wealthy.
Such regular, wanton meddling with the space-time continuum has resulted in “time shifts,” literal, shimmery waves which cause unpredictable and unwanted realignments of reality that change the past and present. The costs of time travel are never explicitly stated, but it’s clear even the extremely affluent can barely afford one go of it. Suppose other people still experience these resulting waves semi-regularly. In that case, the results are less historical than personal, often having little effect other than requiring people to check in with their loved ones to ensure that the most precious components of their lives remain intact.
Nick (Leslie Odom Jr.) has more reason to be uneasy than most since he fears his marital bliss with his wife Janine (Cynthia Erivo) could be undone by her jealous and wealthy ex-husband Tommy (Orlando Bloom). Janine doesn’t want to believe a man she once loved could be capable of such a thing, but she’s proven wrong when a massive wave does successfully tear them apart. When they come up for air, as it were, Jane is once again married to her ex, while Nick finds himself espoused to his college girlfriend Alex (Freida Pinto), forcing him to decide what he’s willing to give up and what he wants to save.
Don’t expect many flashy visuals since even the time travel is stubbornly low-key, with a completely black screen being the sole indication of any time jumping. The rules are relatively simple as well - people remember their changed timelines for up to a few hours at most, and they go back in time as their present selves, not their past selves. Most of the action also takes place in a series of wealthy, upper-middle-class locations with casually diverse crowds, where people are likely to innocently ask just what’s so great about having money. It’s a perfect enclave to cheerfully ignore a burning world.
What makes Needle in a Timestack unique is its care and compassion towards each character. Sure, they may be mouthpieces for various, primarily classic approaches to love and relationships. Still, the movie treats them as worthy of respect, a unique aspect in films devoted to finding a soulmate. No one, including Nick’s commitment-phobic sister (Jadyn Wong), is treated as a case study in how to do relationships right or wrong (though she is platonically devoted to her best friend).
Even Alex is treated as a person whose pain is valid rather than as a subplot. Too bad she doesn’t get more to do since Alex and Janine are both somewhat shoved aside so the attention can focus on Nick, or instead, how he struggles to reconcile his history with Tommy, who would probably be referred to as his frenemy if they weren’t male.
The film’s biggest upset is actually Tommy himself. Originally painted as the villain, he gets to be a person rather than a caricature of wealthy entitlement. He and Nick might as well be the central duo: They are the ones who undergo the most change, and it is their fluctuating relationship that has the most significant effect on each other’s lives. Theirs might just be the most underrated bromance in the history of cinema, as the film practically pivots on their willingness to understand, and finally, actually show a bit of kindness towards each other, which ultimately improves things for the entire fluctuating foursome.
If there’s not much depth to the more traditional romantic relationships, it seems that Ridley is unable, like most of us, to really define just what makes that ultimate prize — the love of a true soulmate — not only lasting but possible. Early on, the very human forces that can break even the strongest marriage get some light exploration, with Nick’s jealousy and outright animosity towards Tommy threatening to do a fair amount of damage even before the timeline gets complicated.
But Needle seems to be of the school of thought that what makes a true connection in the first place is an instinctive pull stronger than both people, yet ultimately binding. Whether that’s enough of an answer depends on whether we can accept that take on love, and perhaps, whether we have the patience to reach the movie’s endpoint in the first place.
Needle in a Timestack is now playing in select theaters, digital and on-demand.