Time travel, in itself, is an endlessly fascinating concept. How would it work? Would it change history? How far back could you go? When you add to this the notion of finding your soulmate, it gets a little more complicated and emotive. No matter how many lives you live – or versions of the past you travel to – would you still end up with that one, same person? Are two people truly meant to be together, no matter what?
It’s questions like these that make for the basis of writer-director John Ridley’s Needle in a Timestack. The film is based on Robert Silverberg’s short story of the same name, which first appeared in Playboy magazine.
Taking two seemingly incongruous genres – sci fi and romance – and bringing them together, the film centres around the love story of Nick (Leslie Odom, Jr) and Janine (Cynthia Erivo). The married couple feel like time is battling against them as Janine’s ex-husband, Tommy (Orlando Bloom), purposefully goes ‘jaunting’ through time in order to win back his ex-wife’s affections.
It’s only fair to comment on what works well within the film. Sci-fi and, indeed, romance is a genre that has so long been dominated by white men and their creator complexes, so it is brilliant to see that three out of the four leads (and many of the supporting cast) are actors of colour. The chemistry between Leslie Odom, Jr and Cynthia Erivo is really wonderful when they’re not explaining time travel theory. There’s lots of really sensual close ups of their hands, eyes and mouths. It feels romantic and intimate.
There’s also a fair bit of commentary on toxic (white) masculinity. Tommy is so obsessed with what feels like ownership of his ex-wife that he is literally willing to manipulate time to get back with her. He also appears to want Nick to be miserable in every time loop – so much so that, having paired him up with Alex (the criminally underused Freida Pinto) in one version of the past, he then seems to want her, too. For Tommy, serendipity or fate or the meeting of two lovers is just something else that his financial privilege can buy, manipulate and destroy.
However, that really is about as good as Needle in a Timestack gets. So much of the dialogue is simply explaining the concept of ‘time shifting’, which doesn’t really place much faith in your viewer to understand your script. It’s so reductive that, at one point, when Nick asks, “Hey, didn’t we have a dog?” you may have to stop yourself from striking your forehead with the palm of your hand in sheer exasperation. And since the film sets up the ‘time shifts’ as a fairly common occurrence within the first twenty minutes or so, it doesn’t need this level of explanation. Certainly not when it comes at the expense of character development.
Many of the scenes play out on top of each other, with overlapping dialogue, so you’re never really sure if what you are seeing has actually happened or is part of another time shift. The fade-to-black transitions really take you out of what’s happening and make the whole thing feel like a series of scenes as opposed to one film. The montage sequence of Nick’s life with Alex – yes, complete with a shot of her dancing with her eyes closed and running her fingers through her hair – just feels so weak and a way of rushing through plot.
There’s also a lot of product placement for folding mobile phones which isn’t really a major flaw, just a bit annoying.
For a film that places so much emphasis on jumping through time, it feels really slow. There’s so many montages and repetition that, by the end of the second ‘chapter’, you’ll have lost all interest. This is compounded by that fact that – out of the four leads – Nick is the only one who’s character is remotely fleshed out (and even then, he still feels pretty two dimensional). Having that emotional investment in how these characters lives turn out simply isn’t there. Given that this is based on a short story, you can’t help but wonder if they just ran out of material …
Although they have good chemistry together, it feels like the two leads – Odom, Jr and Erivo – are completely wasted here. Their characters are so bland that we don’t even get near their capabilities and, at times, it even sounds like they are confused as to what part of the plot we’re at. The premise is interesting, as is the unusual genre blend, but the execution is poor.
Ironically, for a film about time, you’ll probably find yourself checking your watch.
Lionsgate will release NEEDLE IN A TIMESTACK in Theaters, On Demand & Digital on October 15, 2021,
and on Blu-Ray and DVD on October 19, 2021.