Review: Needle in a Timestack explores how love endures when time is constantly changing
Happy married couple see their life together threatened by a romantic rival who travels through time to change their shared past into Needle in a parking meter, a new science fiction film directed by John Ridley. Sure, Needle in a parking meter isn’t the most compelling title, but Ridley has created a flawed yet uplifting love story – featuring the heartwarming performances of Oscar nominees Leslie Odom Jr. and Cynthia Erivo – that begs an existential question: how the can love last when time itself is constantly on the move?
(A few spoilers below for the news and the movie, but no major reveal.)
The film is based on a 1966 short story of the same name by Hugo and award-winning Nebula sci-fi author Robert Silverberg. Time travel is a common theme in Silverberg’s work, especially in novels like House of Bones and Hawksbill Turtle Station. The story goes that Silverberg’s inspiration for “Needle in a Timestack” came at a science fiction convention. That’s when a friend tried to fend off a potential intruder by saying, “Go, kid, or I’ll change your future. Silverberg thought his friend should have threatened to change the intruder’s past, and he realized he had a great premise for a story.
The technical term for time travel in Silverberg’s story is “phasing,” and for protagonist Mikkelsen, the sign that something has been altered in her past is “a cottony taste” in her mouth. The person trying to change the past – and undo his marriage to his wife, Janine – is Tommy Hambledon, who once dated Janine and doesn’t appreciate the fact that she married Mikkelsen instead.
Married people have a checklist of facts about their life together, which they review whenever one of them detects that phasing has occurred to make sure nothing has changed. (There is a two to three hour window before people forget their previous memories after a time phase changes their past.) The premise reminds me a bit of 1997 X-Files episode, “Synchrony,” in which a scientist who helped invent time travel returns to the past to kill his young self, because the future has become a nightmarish world where absolutely nothing is permanent.)
Ridley’s new contemplative film draws inspiration from the original short story by focusing on the romantic triangle at its center. According to the official premise:
If love is shaped like a circle, what lines would you cross to be with your soul mate? In this gripping, near-future love story directed by Oscar winner John Ridley (12 years of slavery, American crime), Nick and Janine (Oscar nominees Leslie Odom, Jr. and Cynthia Erivo) live in marital bliss, until Janine’s ex-husband (Orlando Bloom) wastes time trying to separate them into using Nick’s girlfriend (Freida Pinto). As Nick’s memories and reality fade, he must decide what he’s willing to sacrifice to keep – or give up – everything he loves. Can love last into a future where time is flowing and all of life can be just an illusion?
Instead of the telltale taste of cotton, a temporal phase is visualized as a sort of rippling wave sweeping over everything and everyone. Nick is in a meeting at his architectural firm when one of them arrives, and the boss asks for a break so everyone can call home to go through their personal checklists and make sure nothing major. has not changed. The future population lives in constant fear of being affected by a particularly important temporal wave. Typically, only the super-rich can afford to take “time jaunts,” and while tinkering with the timeline is prohibited, well, tinkering is only human nature. People will push and push with no way of knowing how even a small change can affect not only their lives, but the lives of everyone else. And a few hours after the shift, people won’t even remember that things were different.
Initially, the changes are minor. Nick and Janine have a dog in one timeline and a cat in the other, but the two beasts are called Charlie. But Nick becomes more and more anxious and obsessed with the idea that Tommy is trying to produce a timeline where Nick and Janine have never met, and his bad mood begins to strain the marriage. Then a major time phase hits, and Nick recovers in the middle of nowhere. When he finally reaches Janine, he finds out that she is still married to Tommy, and now time is running out. Can he restore their original timeline before his memories of Janine fade away?
Ridley is doing a tremendous job of creating a believable world in the near future. Much of it looks exactly like our world today. Well-heeled urban professionals always throw lavish parties with live jazz bands, there are always malls with Foot Locker and Mrs. Fields Cookies, and Nick drives a Tesla. But there are subtle differences, especially in the technology. Smartphones still have voice assistants like Siri or Alexa, but they’re square in shape and the design has reverted to flip phones.
There are laptops, flat screens and tablets. But Janine, for example, scrolls through her photographic archives using a cordless pen, never having to touch the screen. These little changes are subtly evidenced by Nick’s fascination with vintage technology: Friends and family know the perfect birthday present is a Sony walkman or a miniature portable red radio.
And garbage collection services, similar to storing things in the cloud, have flourished as people desperately try to ensure their pasts are preserved. Yet a very large phase of time will erase even the stored files, and the money back guarantee is a little comfort to those who are unlucky enough to suffer such a loss.
What makes this movie work are the stellar, sensitive performances of its actors: Odom, Jr., Erivo and Bloom, every emotion playing on their faces, bringing to life what might otherwise be some pretty inert scenes. Their skill also masks the sometimes cheesy dialogue that falters on the verge of pretension.
That said, it’s a challenge to build a feature film around the thin (albeit captivating) premise of a short story, just as it’s a different kind of challenge to condense a huge sci-fi epic into a movie. two hours. Ridley chose to stay focused, with minimal characters and settings. Aside from the central trio, the only other notable characters are Nick’s sister, Zoe (Jadyn Wong) and Nick’s ex-girlfriend, Alex; everyone is just an ornamental window covering moving across the background.
Ridley’s decision certainly raises the emotional stakes – Nick and Janine’s strained relationship is a deeply personal microcosm of the constant threat everyone in this new world faces on a daily basis – but it also makes the film a bit thin and stretched. on its 1h51 of autonomy. The beat drags a bit at times, and because it’s ultimately a love affair, we don’t really understand how horrible a world like this would be, where a sudden time lag, independent of our will, can irrevocably alter our life in seconds. But the movie is visually charming, and we want Nick and Janine (and even Tommy) to land in a timeline where everyone is happy. It is certainly a worthy addition to Ridley’s growth. artwork.
Needle in a parking meter is now showing in select theaters and is also available on demand.