There are surely few people on the planet who haven’t wished they could go back in time and change how one relationship or another turned out. Needle in a Timestack sets up a world where people actually can, provided they have enough money. A lonely man can alter the timeline so his marriage never ended, his ex never moved on, and his best friend never married her.
But whether the lonely man can keep true soul mates apart for good seems to be another question entirely, and that’s the one explored in writer-director John Ridley’s adaptation of Robert Silverberg’s short story. The premise is rich with potential for aching romance and meaningful contemplation of the ways that time and technology can shape how we see our relationships. So it’s too bad that this version of it falls apart under closer examination, with a script that seems enamored of love more as a theoretical concept than a lived experience.
The film opens with a tearful Cynthia Erivo pledging her forever love directly into the camera, in a scene that functions as a litmus test for the viewer: Either you’re willing to go with such unabashed sentimentality or you’re not, and you’ll probably enjoy the movie more if you are. (I was, for the record, but it helped only so much.) Gradually she’s revealed to be Janine, a photographer whose marriage to urban planner Nick (Leslie Odom Jr.) consists of all the usual cinematic shorthand for “deeply in love”: They’re bathed in soft, gentle light as they snuggle on the subway, slow-dance to records at home and gaze at each other with moony eyes from across crowded rooms and rumpled beds.
There’s just one crack in their picture-perfect marriage, and it takes the form of Janine’s ex-husband, Tommy (Orlando Bloom, perfectly smarmy). Nick is increasingly consumed by the suspicion that Tommy has been tweaking the timeline to take Janine back for himself, and while he’s not wrong, the film initially suggests that Nick’s jealousy poses an even bigger threat to his marriage than Tommy’s interference. The damage is reflected in Janine’s horror when Nick suggests he go back in time to hurt Tommy so Janine will never have been married to him, and in warnings from Nick’s sister (Jadyn Wong) that his fear of losing Janine may be the very thing that actually loses her.
But Needle in a Timestack pivots away from this line of thinking in its second act by throwing in a major time-travel twist. The first act carefully lays out how “jaunting” (journeying into the past) fits into this universe. Time-warping has become common enough that “phasing” (the ripple effects of a change in the past, visually represented by waves that look a bit like rushing water) is considered a minor annoyance of modern life; even events as formerly definitive as death can no longer be taken for granted. But the film isn’t actually interested in the implications for anyone or anything beyond Nick’s love life. Time travel turns out to be just a small twist on an otherwise fairly conventional love story.
Which turns out to be a problem, because even with its appealing cast, Needle in a Timestack struggles to deliver a convincing romance. Odom and Erivo look cute and comfortable together, but the film delivers Instagram-worthy snapshots of a relationship rather than the unique reality of one. It’s never clear why exactly Nick and Janine might belong together, or likewise why Janine and Tommy might not. The introduction of another potential love interest, Nick’s ex Alex (Freida Pinto), only muddies the matter further, since neither female character is fleshed out enough for there to be any real distinction between them. For that matter, neither gets much say in her own romantic fate; that’s left up to Nick and Tommy to sort out between themselves.
Indeed, the one truly interesting relationship to emerge from this jumble of brokenhearted lovers is the one between Nick and Tommy. Depending on when they’re interacting, and the state of their timeline when they do, they’re fierce friends relying on each other for emotional support, bitter rivals locked in a zero-sum game, or something in between. Leaps forward or backward reveal new bits of backstory, new facets of their personalities, or new ways of understanding the regrets and resentments between them. The film’s portrait of their relationship may be incomplete, but it’s also dynamic in a way that the others aren’t, and reveals more about both men than the entire sum of their love lives can.
It’s a pity that the film insists on centering the romances. Over and over, the characters keep telling each other “I just want you to be happy” — sometimes as a plea, sometimes as an excuse, sometimes as a concession. But the film’s vision of happiness proves sadly limited, unable to look past the socially accepted default of a single soul mate and maybe some kids. (Even the one character who dismisses monogamy as “misery with company” is wholly devoted to a platonic best friend and no one else.) If love is a circle, as Janine posits in that first speech, Needle in a Timestack suggests it’s one that spins in place — always in motion, but incapable of going anywhere new.