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Escape from Palm Springs

This is a review and analysis of Palm Springs. It’s a delightful movie, and I recommend you watch it. Beyond this point there will be extensive spoilers. So come back and read this as soon as you’ve seen the film!

Palm Springs is a movie with the same basic stuck-in-the-same-day premise as Groundhog Day, but has a very different tone and some different takeaways. Unlike Bill Murray’s solo journey, the time-loop in this movie is experienced by more than one person: Nyles and Sarah.

This means we get to witness them sharing some heavier philosophical conversations — again contrasted with Groundhog Day, where Murray’s character goes to great lengths to convince others of a reality that existed only to him. And is forced to start from scratch the next day. In Palm Springs, that understanding is a starting point between Nyles and Sarah. They don’t know exactly what they’re experiencing, but they mutually recognize it as real, so they don’t really dwell on it. Nyles has been stuck in the time-loop for much longer than Sarah, so he is more resigned to his fate:

NYLES: I have no idea what it is. This might be life, this might be death, might be a dream, I could be imagining you, you could be imagining me, might be purgatory, or this might be a glitch in the computer simulation we’re in. So, after a while I stopped caring altogether. The only way to actually live in this world is to embrace the fact that nothing matters.

Really, I’m writing about this film because of some of the themes and dialogue which overlap with the overarching feelings of our current era. The quote above could easily be transposed to real-life. A theme in my upcoming book and previous Substack posts is the pervasive feeling of meaninglessness in the world, and the alarming number of people embracing the outlook Nyles expressed.

Instead of speculation on whether this is a simulation, although some are certainly having that debate, a tweaked reading of Nyles’ sentiment is: We can’t tell what’s important or true; we have nothing providing significance, coherence or purpose; we can’t make intimate connections, and spend more of our time in “computer simulated” online life; and if we are so out of touch with what matters, then essentially nothing matters. Yet, like Sarah and Nyles, we also have the sense that we can’t escape whatever this is, and somehow have to make the best of it? Even though “it” has lost all meaning?

SARAH: Then what’s the point of living? NYLES: Well, you have no choice but to live, so I guess you gotta learn to suffer existence.

From this point, pain and love become major themes. And the characters experience plenty of both. But most interesting is what these Good and Bad things even mean in the time loop of Palm Springs. Early in the film, Sarah is trying to escape from Palm Springs, and thinks maybe crashing her car will end her waking-nightmare. Nyles, who is in the car with her, reminds her that they will simply wake up at the beginning of the day again, but that they can still be in excruciating pain for the rest of the current day:

SARAH: What are you doing? NYLES: Bracing for a quick death. We can’t die, but pain is a very real thing. There’s nothing worse than dying slowly in the ICU.

And later, after causing pain to both Nyles and another character:

SARAH: You’ll be fine tomorrow. NYLES: PAIN IS REAL. Why can’t you understand that? SARAH: It doesn’t matter. Nothing matters. Those are your words. NYLES: Pain matters! What we do to other people matters!

Sarah confronts Nyles with his own philosophy, and he is forced to amend his sentiment that nothing in this life has meaning. By the end of the film, Sarah has spent an undetermined, but definitely extremely long time, devising a way for the two of them to maybe escape their time-loop. However, during this same time, the two have also fallen in love. At this point it has become clear that what Nyles had been feeling was not about the inherent emptiness of existence, but the lack of meaning in his own life. Sarah, on the other hand, is not convinced that even love can have meaning if it divorced from a commonly-shared reality.

SARAH: Holy shit. You’re scared to leave. NYLES: No, I’m not. I just don’t WANT to leave. There’s a difference. SARAH: What’s the difference? NYLES: I wanna stay with you. SARAH: Everything we’re doing in here is meaningless. You know that, right? This isn’t real. NYLES: It’s real to me.

In our world, Sarah’s view is a reflection of a meaning crisis — a collapse of grand narratives which provide the tools for meaning-making. Again, we simply need to see the isomorphism between our worlds: Sarah is not convinced their lives have meaning if they are the only dynamic part of a static universe, and we feel equally inconsequential when we can’t place ourselves within a larger story which provides context for our actions.

This is why a metamodern reconstruction of grand narratives can serve the same purpose as the film’s resolution, in which Nyles and Sarah finally make it from November 9th to November 10th. They hold onto the love and pain from their time in Palm Springs, but put it in the context of a reality shared by all — a reality they can change and be changed by.


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