In Harold Ramis’ 1993 film Groundhog Day, the main character Phil Connors wakes up in a time loop which forces him to relive the titular holiday over and over again in the city of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Even describing Phil’s predicament feels redundant to a degree because of how ubiquitous the film and its central device has become over the past 30 years; the notion of using “Groundhog Day” as a shorthand to describe someone trapped in a loop has become so ingrained into our cultural fabric that it can feel at times like there is no fresh analytical points that can be made in regards to the film. But upon looking at how the film impacted other pieces of media that took advantage of its conceit and took it into new territory, as well as examining the mechanics of Phil’s loop at a granular level, shows how Groundhog Day set a narrative template that impacted American popular culture in ways that aren’t immediately apparent.
The circumstances of Phil’s entrapment are never explained to the viewer or to Phil himself, which feels like a breath of fresh air compared to the current media landscape where each fantastical plot element is over-explained to the point of losing any sense of mystery or thematic resonance. It is clear that Phil has an innate pomposity and inflated sense of self that makes him want to leave Punxsutawney as quickly as possible, so upon first glance it would make sense to surmise that the loop is designed on a narrative level to give Phil the comeuppance he deserves and force him to become a more engaged, altruistic person. And while the ending of the film certainly shows this reading of the film to be at least partially true, it is an inherently reductive view of the film and its themes.
In order to jump into the thematic complexity of Groundhog Day it is necessary to explicate how the loop itself works. At 6 am each morning, any changes that have occurred over the course of the day are completely reset, not dissimilar from how a level in a video game will restart once its main character has died. This was illustrated when Phil broke a pencil and put it by his bedside right before he fell asleep, only to find it intact when he woke up the next morning. While there is an intrinsically hellish aspect to this existence, in which meaning is drained away and actions have no consequences because there is literally no tomorrow, Phil begins to take advantage of his newfound situation. He asks a woman named Nancy Taylor where she went to high school and who her 12th grade English teacher was in order to opportunistically use the information the next day to seduce her, and steals money from a Brinks truck in order to buy a lavish new car and Western outfit for a date. It would seem that far from forcing Phil to become a better person, the loop validates his worst tendencies and causes his vanity to explode in the process.
It is Phil’s courtship of Rita, the optimistic producer who accompanies him to Punxsutawney, that reveals exactly what Groundhog Day has been playing at the whole time. He attempts to use the Nancy Taylor playbook in order to get her into bed, which is almost successful until Rita catches on to Phil’s master plan and leaves abruptly. But instead of admitting defeat and moving on, Phil recognizes a desire on his part to be with Rita that doesn’t stem from cheap gratification but instead a profound longing for self-betterment. Phil’s worldview had become so jaundiced by cynicism that only seeing someone who is genuinely positive and cheerful can be a catalyst for him changing his ways. As such, the loop doesn’t force Phil to change but instead reveals who he was all along: a secret romantic who wants to be more engaged with others and his surroundings but is moving too fast to do so.
This perhaps explains why love is so totemic when it comes to time loop narratives. In films such as Palm Springs and even the Tom Cruise action film Edge of Tomorrow, the core relationship between the two main characters serves as what drives the story forward; Cruise’s character William Cage in Edge is tasked with staving off an apocalyptic alien invasion but the setup fades into the background over the course of the film as his potentially romantic relationship with his commanding sergeant, Rita Vrataski, develops. In that film, there isn’t the kind of payoff that comes at the end of Groundhog Day (where Phil and Rita get together and decide to live in Punxsutawney), but in its more piquant ending Edge of Tomorrow speaks to how relationships are the one thing that matter most when it comes to time loop narrative. Cage sees Vrataski after he has successfully neutralized the alien threat, and laughs when he sees that she doesn’t recognize him; however, there is a distinctly melancholic look in his eye, and it leaves the viewer to ponder whether he would have traded the fate of the world if it meant that he and Vrataski could end up together. A loop may mean that nothing changes, yet if there is one thing that Groundhog Day and films of its ilk show is that the desire to find someone else transcends even the most fantastical quirks in temporality, or at least makes a very good story.
— Finn Flackett-Levin