The Timeless Appeal of the Time Loop — 30 Years of Groundhog Day
He’s having the worst day of his life… over, and over…
“Well, it’s Groundhog Day… again”
Even if you’ve never seen the 1993 movie Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray, chances are, you’ve heard of the time-loop trope. Characters are stuck reliving the same day until they learn the lesson they need to move on. Netflix’s Russian Doll depicts Natasha Lyonne’s character reliving the day of her death. Hulu’s Palm Springs showcases the comical misadventures of Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti as they relive the same day.
Groundhog Day has the same plot device, which is why it is fondly remembered in film history as the origin of the modern time-loop trope. This movie provided a blueprint that has been used in books, movies, TV shows, and video games for the past 30 years. In Groundhog Day, protagonist Phil Connors (Bill Murray) a sarcastic, self-centered weather reporter, gets stuck reliving the worst day of his life. Through many mistakes, false starts, and restarts, Phil becomes a better person and finds love with his producer, Rita (Andie MacDowell).
Groundhog Day is celebrating its 30th anniversary this month. It was released on February 12, 1993, the same month as the holiday that inspired its plot and setting. Director Harold Ramis’ unique spin on a problem-solution storyline was a box-office success. The movie has grossed $71,112,677 at box offices worldwide.
The time-loop trope, while comforting in its familiarity, can also be repetitive. In a 2009 interview, Ramis posited Phil was stuck in the loop for 30-40 years. That’s a long winter, even by Punxsutawney Phil’s standards. A successful time-loop story features captivating character development, a memorable setting, dynamic relationships for the audience to connect with, elements of humor, and a relatable sense of déjà vu.
Compelling Character Development
At the beginning of the movie, Phil is a cranky, arrogant weather reporter who talks down to others. Unsure of his path in life, Phil muddles along in his job and love life without the motivation to make the changes he needs to be happy. When Phil first realizes he is relieving the same day, he moves through denial, confusion, fear, and annoyance. He’s brusque with new acquaintances and speaks bluntly to his coworkers. While charming to a degree, his behavior is offputting.
Phil leans into his time-loop frustration by taking advice from some locals he meets at a bar. He asks his companions what they would do if there were no tomorrow. They tell Phil there would be no consequences, meaning they could do whatever they want. The idea of giving into impulses appeals to Phil. He spends the next few time loops giving into debauchery. He is imprisoned for driving on the train tracks, and wakes up with relief when the next day resets. Seeing that his actions did not incite a new outcome, he fully leans into all of his impulses. He punches an annoying former classmate, steals money, smokes, and gathers information to seduce women.
It’s not until Phil fails to seduce Rita that he changes his mindset and behavior. Seeing that his no-consequence lifestyle is unfulfilling, Phil tries to find meaning in his looping life. Instead of letting life happen to him, Phil does things that will bring him fulfillment. He takes piano lessons, learns to carve ice sculptures, and does kind deeds around town.
Groundhog Day takes place in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Punxsutawney is the home of Punxsutawney Phil, the famous groundhog whose shadow predicts a late winter or an early spring each February 2nd. It’s no coincidence that protagonist Phil Connors shares the same first name with the weather-predicting rodent.
Phil initially scoffs at Punxsutawney’s cozy, small-town vibe. He resents covering the same event at Gobbler’s Knob for the fourth time in a row. As time goes on, Phil learns to appreciate the town’s enthusiasm. He even tells Rita the town has grown on him. As the setting for Phil’s transformation throughout the film, the movie ends with Phil asking Rita to stay in Punxsutawney with him. The last line of the movie is, “Let’s live here…we’ll rent to start.”
Phil’s relationships make his journey to self-awareness more poignant. The most pivotal relationship Phil has is with his love interest, Rita. Toward the movie’s midpoint, Phil admits to a sleeping Rita that he loved her at first sight. This admission may come as a surprise to the audience, as Phil appears to overcompensate when interacting with Rita up to this point. When Rita lists the qualities of a potential love interest, she admits to looking for a partner who is humble, kind, funny, sensitive, and gentle. Phil claims to be all of those things. He is boastful and overconfident, which earns Rita’s amusement, but not her respect. Phil trusts Rita, as she’s the only person he shares his time-hopping dilemma with. One turning point is when Rita calls Phil out on his manipulative behavior by trying to seduce her. Phil becomes determined to win Rita’s heart on her terms instead of his own. He learns to play the piano, remembering Rita is attracted to musicians. Phil makes it a point to do kind acts for others, knowing Rita values humility and altruism. At the end of the film, Rita outbids other women when a date with Phil is auctioned off. Rita sees that Phil’s character and values have changed for the better.
Phil’s relationship with a homeless man (Les Podewell) marks a change in his character development. At the beginning of the film, Phil ignores the homeless man. Later, he acknowledges the man by giving him money. As the film progresses, Phil takes a vested interest in the homeless man’s wellbeing. He sees him coughing and brings him to the hospital. When Phil learns the man died, he cannot accept this outcome. In subsequent timelines, he stays by the man’s side, feeding him chicken soup and giving him CPR. However, the man dies in each timeline. Losing the homeless man shows Phil he can’t control everyone else’s outcome, only his own. The homeless man’s death is a turning point. Phil becomes more kind-hearted after this encounter. Phil focuses on the things he can change for the better.
Phil’s relationships with the people of Punxsutawney provide opportunities for growth and self-awareness. Phil is initially selfish and uses the people for his own gain. He manipulates Nancy (Marita Geraghty) into dating him by asking her questions in one timeline, so he can pretend they are old acquaintances in the next timeline. As the plot progresses, Phil learns to better serve the community. He rescues a young boy who falls out of a tree each day. He saves a man from choking. He fixes a flat tire for a group of women. These acts of kindness give Phil a sense of purpose and achievement while bonding him with the townspeople.
Sense of Humor
Ramis’ script is clever in design and structure. The elements of humor in the script let these features shine. Phil is a character who doesn’t take himself too seriously. There’s a physical comedy to his movements, like when he stuffs his face with breakfast at the diner or when a montage of Rita slapping him in multiple timelines plays. When Phil lies on a couch in a psychiatrist’s office, convinced he’s going crazy, he moans and hits himself with a pillow.
Phil is a fast-talker who is quick with quips. He refers to Punxsutawney Phil as “the world’s most famous weatherman…the groundhog.” When Mrs. Lancaster asks Phil if he plans to leave Punxsutawney, he replies that his “chance of departure” is at “75-80%.” At times, he seems to address to the audience, especially with tongue-in-cheek comments like, “Didn’t we do this yesterday?”
Déjà vu is a feeling something overly or unpleasantly familiar. This theme is prevalent in the film and relatable to the audience. People make choices every day. Throughout life, people reflect on the choices they’ve made and wish they could go back and fix a mistake or make a different choice. Phil provides that wish fulfillment for the audience. He gets to try different choices and see how they play out.
Features in the film emphasize the theme of déjà vu. The alarm clock changing to 6 a.m. as Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” plays marks the beginning of a new loop. The same settings in the town pop up repeatedly: the bed-and-breakfast, the diner, Gobbler’s Knob. At one point, Rita remarks to Phil that there’s something familiar about their interactions.
Many time loops repeat at the point of Phil’s error in judgment, with the next scene showing how he rectifies his mistake. For example, when Phil makes a toast to Groundhog Day, a disappointed Rita tells him she always toasts to world peace. The next scene shows Phil at the same moment in a future timeline, toasting to world peace. When Phil mocks Rita’s education in 19th-century French literature, the next scene shows him quoting French literature.
The déjà vu theme works in the time-loop plot because it gives the protagonist the chance to make different choices. The audience can relate to Phil’s struggles because each day is an opportunity to learn from the choices made in the past. At the beginning of the film, Phil is frustrated with the predictable nature of his life. When events in life feel too repetitive, people seek to make changes. Phil’s journey underscores the human desire for growth and development. Groundhog Day is a feel-good classic with a timeless message, which may be why it stands the test of time.