“Why are men?” seems like a provocative question, but it’s an incredibly reasonable response to John Ridley’s sci-fi romance Needle in a Timestack. The film introduces time-travel to a world, but promptly rejects it as a way to save past lives, create world peace, or stop a humanity-ending virus. (Who cares about other people, you know?) Instead, Ridley offers up a spiritual successor to stories like The Time-Traveler’s Wife and About Time, in which time-travel is used to further sentimental ideas about soulmates, monogamy, and fate.
Admittedly, that’s an appreciable change of pace from the doom and gloom usually associated with time-travel, as in the Terminator franchise, The Tomorrow War, or 12 Monkeys. But Needle in a Timestack lacks the interior worldbuilding necessary to pull off its heartstring-tugging intentions, and the result is a movie that unintentionally confirms how no good ever comes from men who obsessively refuse to leave women alone.
An adaptation of a decades-old short story by Robert Silverberg (reprinted recently in the anthology The Time Traveler’s Almanac, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer), Needle in a Timestack was adapted and directed by Ridley, who won the Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award for 12 Years a Slave. This is Ridley’s first foray into sci-fi after a career spent primarily in drama (Three Kings, Ben-Hur, the TV series anthology American Crime) and comedy (Martin, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Barbershop: The Series). Maybe that’s why the film lacks so many of the genre details that would make this world seem real.
It’s impossible to decipher how any of the time-travel works in Needle in a Timestack. Rich people can time-travel easily, but they’re not supposed to change the past, because time-cops will punish them. But this is entirely a story about someone selfishly changing the past, and there are no repercussions at all! If this is meant to be a commentary on the wealthy operating by different rules than everyone else, the film doesn’t make that clear — the lack of accountability feels more like a dropped plot point. But what’s even more detrimental to the film is the confusing way Ridley handles the effects of time-travel.
In the near future, architect Nick (Hamilton and One Night In Miami star Leslie Odom Jr.) and photographer Janine (Bad Times At The El Royale breakout star Cynthia Erivo) are happily married. “If I didn’t know you, would I still fall in love with you?” Nick wonders while watching Janine at a dinner party. He clearly thinks he would. But Nick is also obsessively worried about Janine’s ex-husband, the wealthy Tommy (Orlando Bloom), who has used time-travel three times to try and change the past and get Janine back.
Whenever a “time shift” hits, imagined by Ridley as a wave-like whoosh of air that crashes over and through people, Nick is consumed with fear — and then anger when he learns that Janine has secretly met with Tommy since their divorce. He suspects that she’s hiding more from him. Meanwhile, Tommy enlists Nick’s ex Alex (Freida Pinto), to help him alter the course of all their lives. Once, these four were friends, but now they’re trying to reverse and unravel each other’s choices.
In some scenes, “time shifts” or “phases” create broad changes for everyone in the present, while in others, effects are only temporary, or only have an impact on one person. What causes those differences? Who controls this technology? How is it regulated? How does this near-future version of the United States have easily accessible time-travel, but no clear way to protect memories, except by printing out photographs, then visiting a mall store to have an employee scan them and lock up the data in a vault in the cloud? (Also, malls still exist in this hazy sci-fi future? Really?)
Those questions might sound nitpicky, but they stand out because the film’s inconsistencies severely complicate the romantic relationships that are meant to be the story’s center. The four main characters are clearly Ridley’s primary narrative focus, and he bumps them against each other in varying ways to explore the suspicions, regrets, fantasies, and desires that go along with marriage.
But Janine and Alex are so barely sketched-out that they lack equitable weight in this quad. So Needle in a Timestack just becomes a tedious recounting of two insecure dudes engaged in a petty tug-of-war over the women in their lives. Cinematic sci-fi can and should be populated with smaller-scale, intimate stories to balance out the genre’s endless space-opera epics and dystopian blockbusters, but Needle in a Timestack is a hollow attempt at matching personal emotional stakes with a high-concept sci-fi idea.
After introducing these characters, Ridley swiftly cordons them off into varying pairs, so it falls on the actors to imbue his self-serious script with the emotional grit he’s so desperately attempting to achieve. The results are mixed from scene to scene. The issue is the gap between who the film thinks these characters are, and how their actions actually come across. As Nick, Odom is believably anguished and protective of his wife, but his clear lack of respect for Janine’s agency and choices isn’t the loving gesture the film suggests it is.
Bloom plays Tommy on a single smug register, and although he perfects the art of having a punchable face, he doesn’t pull off the wounded fragility Needle in a Timestack demands later in the film. (Alas, there is no timeline where Nick and Tommy, with all their unresolved tension, fall for each other.) And Pinto and Erivo are both limited by the flatness of their characters, and by the lack of attention the film pays to what they want. What does Alex miss about Nick? What made Janine fall in love with Tommy in the first place? Where are the details of these women’s lives? Whatever vibrancy the normally charismatic Erivo and Pinto could offer is flattened by their positioning in this story as objects to be traded back and forth between them men. Dialogue like “Every time we fall in love, we’re just stealing a person from someone else” makes this cringeworthy point particularly clear.
Needle in a Timestack repeats over and over that some love is just meant to be, no matter how the world around it operates. (More than one character solemnly intones the line, “Love is drawn in the form of a circle.”) Certainly one common trope of time-travel stories is that nothing anyone does in the past can ever completely change the present. But Ridley’s unwillingness to meaningfully grapple with that ideological stance, and his seeming inability to see that his male protagonists are actually exhausting, makes Needle in a Timestack difficult to get lost in.
Needle in a Timestack debuts in limited theatrical release and for digital and On Demand rental starting Oct. 15, with a Blu-ray and DVD release on Oct. 19.