A happily married couple finds their life together threatened by a romantic rival who travels back in time to alter their shared past in Needle in a Timestack, a new science fiction film directed by John Ridley. Sure, it’s not the most compelling title, but Ridley has created a flawed but thought-provoking love story—featuring moving performances by two Oscar nominated actors, Leslie Odom, Jr. and Cynthia Erivo—that poses an existential question: how can love endure when time itself is constantly in flux?
(Some spoilers below for the short story and the film, but no major reveals.)
The film is based on a 1966 short story of the same name by Hugo and Nebula award-winning science fiction author Robert Silverberg. Time travel is a common theme in Silverberg’s work, most notably in novels like House of Bones and Hawksbill Station. The story goes that Silverberg’s inspiration for “Needle in a Timestack” came during a science fiction convention, when a friend tried to rebuff a would-be interloper by telling him, “Go away, kid, or I’ll change your future.” Silverberg thought his friend should have threatened to change the interloper’s past, and realized he had a terrific premise for a story.
The technical term for time travel in Silverberg’s story is “phasing,” and for the main protagonist, Mikkelsen, the tell for something having been altered in his past is “a taste of cotton” in his mouth. The person trying to alter the past—and undo his marriage to his wife, Janine—is Tommy Hambledon, who once dated Janine and resents the fact that she married Mikkelsen instead.
The couple has a checklist of facts about their life together, which they review every time one of them senses a phasing has occurred to make sure nothing has changed. (There’s a window of two to three hours before people forget their previous memories after a time-phase changes their past.) The premise reminds me a bit of the 1997 X-Files episode, “Synchrony,” in which a scientist who helped invent time travel returns to the past to kill his younger self, because the future has become a nightmarish world where absolutely nothing is permanent.
Ridley’s contemplative new film hews pretty closely to the original short story, focusing on the romantic triangle at its center. Per the official premise:
If love is in the form of a circle, what lines would you cross to be with your soulmate? In this gripping, near-future love story directed by Oscar-winner John Ridley (12 Years a Slave, American Crime), Nick and Janine (Oscar nominees Leslie Odom, Jr. and Cynthia Erivo) live in marital bliss, until Janine’s ex-husband (Orlando Bloom) warps time to try to tear them apart using Nick’s college girlfriend (Freida Pinto). As Nick’s memories and reality disappear, he must decide what he’s willing to sacrifice in order to hold onto—or let go of—everything he loves. Can love endure in a future where time is fluid, and all of life may be just an illusion?
Instead of the telltale taste of cotton, when a time phase hits in the film, it’s visualized as a kind of undulating wave that washes over everyone and everything. Nick is in a meeting at his architecture firm when one hits, and the boss calls for a break so everyone can call home to run through their personal checklists and make sure nothing major has changed. Everyone lives in constant fear of getting hit by an especially large time wave. Typically, it’s just the super-rich who can afford to go on “time jaunts,” and while tinkering with the timeline is forbidden—well, it’s just human nature. People are going to tinker, with no way of knowing how even a small change can ripple through not just their lives, but the lives of everyone else. And within a few hours of the shift, people won’t even remember things were ever any different.
Initially, the changes are minor. Nick and Janine have a dog in one timeline, and a cat in the other, yet both are named Charlie. But Nick becomes increasingly anxious and obsessed with the idea that Tommy is trying to produce a timeline where Nick and Janine never met, and his moodiness begins to strain the marriage. And then a major time phase hits, and Nick comes to in the middle of nowhere. When he finally reaches Janine, he discovers that she is still married to Tommy, and now the clock is ticking. Can he restore their original timeline, before his memories of Janine disappear?
Ridley has done a terrific job of creating a believable near-future world. It mostly looks exactly like our world today. Well-heeled urban professional still hold lavish parties with live jazz bands, there are still malls with Foot Locker and Mrs. Fields Cookies outlets, and Nick drives a Tesla. But there are subtle differences, especially in the technology. There are smart phones with vocal assistants like Siri or Alexa, but they’re square-shaped and the design has reverted back to flip phones.
There are laptop computers, flat-screen displays, and tablets, but Janine, for instance, scrolls through her photographic archives using a wireless stylo, without ever having to touch the screen. Those small changes are subtly highlighted by Nick’s fascination with vintage tech: friends and family know the perfect birthday gift is a Sony Walkman, or a miniature portable red radio.
And memory retrieval services, akin to storing things in the cloud, have prospered as people desperately try to ensure that their pasts will be preserved. Still, a really big time phase will wipe out even those stored files, and the guaranteed refund is small comfort to those unfortunate enough to experience such a loss.
What makes this film work are the stellar, sensitive performances of its cast: Odom, Jr., Erivo, and Bloom, whose every emotion plays across their faces, enlivening what might otherwise be fairly inert scenes. Their skill also masks the occasionally cheesy dialogue that teeters on the edge of pretentiousness.
That said, it’s a challenge to build a feature film around the slim premise (however captivating) of a short story, just like it’s a different kind of challenge to condense a huge, sweeping science fiction epic into a two-hour film. Ridley has chosen to keep his focus narrow, with minimal characters and settings. Apart from the central trio, the only other notable characters are Nick’s sister Zoe (Jadyn Wong) and Nick’s ex-girlfriend, Alex; everyone else is just ornamental window dressing moving through the background.
Ridley’s decision certainly enhances the emotional stakes—Nick and Janine’s strained relationship is a deeply personal microcosm of the constant threat that everyone in this brave new world faces on a daily basis—but it also makes the film feel a bit thin and stretched out over its 1:51 run time. The pacing drags a bit at times, and because this is ultimately a love story, we don’t really get a sense of just how horrifying a world like this would be, where a sudden time shift, beyond one’s control, can irrevocably alter one’s life in seconds. But the film is visually lovely, and we do want to root for Nick and Janine (and even Tommy) to land in a timeline where everyone is happy. It’s certainly a worthy addition to Ridley’s growing oeuvre.
Needle in a Timestack is now playing in select theaters and is also available on demand.