Everyone has days that they inevitably wish that some days would never end. While reality can often be a disappointingly repetitive cycle or work or school, stories about time-loops tease the imagination with the idea that those special days might go on forever.
With repeating lives playing a major role in Marvel's House of X storyline, CBR is taking a look across the spectrum of pop culture to find some of the best time loop tales in fiction. For the purposes of this list, we'll be looking at stories where time loops are the bulk of a story's plot, and not stories like Doctor Strange, which only feature time loops intermittently. Likewise, the "time loop" itself don't have to be literal manipulations of the space-time continuum. Time just needs to appear to be looping from at least one character's perspective for a movie or TV show to qualify for this list.
Of course, 1993's Groundhog Day is the quintessential time loop story. In this PG classic, grumpy weatherman Phil (played by Bill Murray) is trapped on Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, Philadelphia. Gradually becoming a time lord, Phil performs a flawless speed run of February 2nd, befriending the entire town, saving multiple lives, mastering the piano and romancing his coworker to break out of the loop.
Considering that most time loop stories directly reference Groundhog Day, its inclusion here is pretty much obligatory. Even after saving multiple lives and a marriage on multiple loops, Phil only breaks out of the time loop after successfully sleeping with his coworker. Granted, Phil is a better person by this point, but it's still mildly unsettling that hooking up fixed everything.
Source Code combines Groundhog Day with Murder on The Orient Express, as quasi-Robocop Colter Stevens, played by Jake Gyllanhal, has eight recurring minutes to find both a bomber and their bomb on a doomed train. Though the train has already exploded, Colter can explore a simulation of the train using Source Code, a matrix created from the memories of one of the bomber's victims. While Colter "cannot" save the train's passengers, identifying the bomber will prevent another bombing, granting urgency to each loop.
The problem with Source Code is that the science behind it doesn't make sense. If Source Code is created out of a dead man's memories, what fills in the gaps for the other train passengers? Also, we stressed that Colter "cannot" save anyone, because at the end of the film he saves everyone, in a sense.
HAPPY DEATH DAY
Every day on her birthday, sorority girl Tree is murdered by a psychopath in a baby mask in Happy Death Day. In what's essentially Groundhog Day but with a slasher movie motif, Tree must stop her own murder and become a decent human being to break the loop. Despite its PG-13 rating, Happy Death Day creates genuine horror and humor in every loop.
While Happy Death Day is cute and enjoyable, its sequel Happy Death Day 2U is pretty bad. Despite explaining why Tree was stuck in a loop, the bulk of the film has Tree stuck in an alternate Earth playing out the events of the first film, but with some minor details mixed around. Ultimately, Happy Death Day 2U is the cinematic equivalent of lackluster DLC.
Given their repetitious nature, most time loop tales truncate the loop to keep the audience entertained. Then there's "Endless Eight" from The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. For eight episodes, the SOS Brigade enjoys the last two weeks of summer, vaguely aware that something is wrong. Every time, the club members discover that their club leader Haruhi, unsatisfied with her vacation, is unwittingly using her powers to make summer last forever. On the last day of summer Kyon ignores his homework, knowing summer will reset.
Despite the varying animation for each episode, nothing really changes as we witness the first, 15,498th, 15,499th, 15,513th, 15,521st, 15,524th, 15,527th and 15,532nd loops. After looping for 537 years, Kyon takes Haruhi's advice, making the Brigade complete their homework on August 31st, satisfying Haruhi and breaking the loop. While it isn't enjoyable whatsoever, no other entry expresses the torturous monotony of repetition like "Endless Eight".
Phineas and Ferb: THE LAST DAY OF SUMMER
While returning some DVDs to Vanessa at Doofenshmirtz Evil Incorporated, Candace accidentally activates the Do-Over-inator, trapping her and Dr. Doofenshmirtz in a perpetual final day of summer in "The Last Day of Summer" from Phineas and Ferb. Serving as the series' finale, "The Last Day of Summer" explores the desires of every child and/or grad student: a summer vacation that never ends combined with unlimited episodes of Phineas and Ferb.
Activating this final "-inator" forces Candace into a Sisyphean existence of failing to bust the boys, who make increasingly impressive contraptions. Meanwhile, Doofenshmirtz constructs an increasingly complicated trap to subdue Perry The Platypus, while simultaneously creating a Tri-Governor-inator to satisfy his dreams of ruling the tri-state area. Subsequent loops damage the space-time continuum however, causing tears in reality that gradually remove objects from existence.
SUPERNATURAL: MYSTERY SPOT
Sam must get Dean through the day alive in "Mystery Spot", the eleventh episode from the third season of Supernatural. Every time Dean dies, Sam wakes up at the start of the loop to the sound of Asia's "Heat of the Moment."
Despite the fun Dean death montage, it's lame how Sam breaks the loop. First, Sam notices a deviation in the loop: a diner patron using strawberry syrup instead of maple syrup on his pancakes. Sam pursues this patron, who turns out to be the Trickster. The Trickster breaks the loop, only for Dean to die. Over the next six months, Sam tracks down the Trickster, convincing him to reset time to before Dean's death. Ultimately, the Trickster had trapped the brothers in time to teach them that they can't rely on resurrections, which ultimately proved not to be the case for the majority of the show's run.
Legends of Tomorrow: HERE I GO AGAIN
Appropriately for a show about time-traveling superheroes, DC's Legends of Tomorrow throws Zari into a time-loop in "Here I Go Again," the eleventh episode from the third season. Referencing both Groundhog Day and Star Trek: The Next Generation, Zari has an hour to stop the Waverider from exploding. Hijinks occur, Mick Rory is outed as a space-romance novelist and Zari raids the Legends' trophy room in this bottle episode.
"Here I Go Again" even has the least contrived explanation for why Zari is caught in a time loop: Zari isn't actually repeating time, rather she is living out multiple runs of a highly sophisticated simulation designed by the artificial intelligence Gideon in order to build trust between Zari and digital approximations of her newfound teammates.
Star Trek: The Next Generation: CAUSE AND EFFECT
Star Trek: The Next Generation's "Cause and Effect" actually predates Groundhog Day. You'll recognize the plot: The Enterprise crew has to break the time loop before everything explodes. As the second most referenced time loop story in pop culture, "Cause and Effect" utilizes clever methods of keeping the audience entertained despite the repetition, like drastically changing each loop's cinematography.
If "Cause and Effect" is such an influential time loop story, then why doesn't it rank higher? Well, the solution to breaking out of the loop is awfully contrived. Around bedtime, a collective scream is heard, which is identified as a disturbance in a Dekyon field, a fictional subatomic particle. Coincidentally, the android Data can sense Dekyon fields or whatever. So, Data is altered to carry over crucial information. "Cause and Effect" thus establishes the trope of a contrived solution breaking a time loop.
THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: MAJORA'S MASK
Players have 72 hours to save the world from getting smushed by a scary moon in The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask. Possessed by Majora's Mask, the Skull Kid has set the horrible Moon on a crash course with the parallel world of Termina. Using the Ocarina of Time, Link can warp to the start of the Moon's descent to buy more time. Basically "Groundhog Day: The Game," Majora's Mask involves memorizing the routines of the doomed world's inhabitants, delivering their letters, freeing their souls and curing their hangovers. Like every time travel loop tale, Majora's Mask breaks the rules for your convenience, allowing Link to retain important items.
From Tetris to Dark Souls, literally every video game with multiple lives forces the player into a loop. Majora's Mask fully embraces this cyclical nature, as the downright frightening Moon is almost always visible, creating a sense of dread that permeates throughout.
EDGE OF TOMORROW
Serving on the frontlines against the unbeatable Mimic aliens, Major William Cage (played by Tom Cruise) sacrifices his life to kill an Alpha Mimic. While dying, Cage is baptized in the Alpha's blood, giving him the power to reset the day upon death. Stuck in a kill-zone, Cage seeks the help of the legendary soldier Rita Vrataski (played by Emily Blunt), whose ace power-armor skills are the result of being stuck in a time loop as well.
Based on the light novel All You Need Is Kill, Edge of Tomorrow is the cinematic equivalent of Dark Souls. We see Cage suffer an excruciating/hilarious death, only to then attempt skipping through dialogue by finishing others' sentences in subsequent runs. Additionally, we don't see every one of Cage's failed loops, resulting in an intricate dance of an action film.
The Netflix original series Russian Doll breaks new ground for time loop stories. In the show's eight-episode first season, we initially we focus on Nadia, a video-game programmer who keeps dying in increasingly dramatic/comedic ways only to return to her birthday party. Halfway through we meet Alan, who is also stuck in a loop. Whereas Nadia uses her programming background to search for the "bug" causing the loop, the neurotic Alan uses the loop to gain control over his life.
What separates Russian Doll from its peers is that despite the plot's repetitive nature, it never feels repetitive. Sure, Nadia always resets to her birthday party, but she isn't confined to the day. Accordingly, the setting can advance beyond the party, making each installment feel unique. Most importantly, Russian Doll provides a four-dimensional explanation behind its time loop that actually makes sense.