Just when you think you’ve seen it all, they go and make a syrupy sci-fi melodrama about two guys using time travel to fight over a woman. Jumping into the unfortunately growing slate of sci-fi romances, “Needle in a Timestack” is not an ounce as charming as “About Time” and far more self-serious than the equally bizarre but mildly humorous “Timer.” What it does have is a universe with its own rules, one in which everyone is in constant fear of waves known as “time-shifts,” a side effect of time travel, which it calls “jaunting.” Though the movie is clearly enamored with its own creativity, it’s not fun for anyone else. The title alone has already inspired titters online, and the movie is just as clunky and overwrought.
Broken into chapters corresponding to different romantic configurations as they appear and disappear in the timeline, the movie opens with Nick (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Janine (Cynthia Erivo) in utterly boring wedded bliss. “Love is a circle,” she tells him in a recorded video message that plays on his sleek flip phone like a futuristic Marco Polo. Though time travel is a common endeavor in this world, the alternate universe concocted by “Needle in a Timestack” is only slightly off from our current one: Photographer Janine edits photos with a stylus that she can hold in the air without touching the screen. Architect Nick can flip a piece of paper from out of his iPad-like thingy. Rich people can time travel and ruin everyone else’s lives.
When a “time-shift” occurs, it appears as a translucent wave that can wash over an entire room or city. Afterwards, everyone checks on their families to make sure they still remember who they are. Nick and Janine repeat their names and address to each other, and she reassures him that there’s no way they could ever be separated. But Nick is convinced her ex-boyfriend Tommy (Orlando Bloom) is using time travel in order to take her away from him, or win her back, whatever possessive language du jour the script throws around wildly like it’s 1985. Despite Janine’s assurances, Nick becomes possessed with jealousy when he learns Janine did indeed see Tommy, and even accepted a gift from him. When they do become separated by a powerful time-shift, he must beat Tommy at his own game to untangle the overlapping timelines.
Based on a short story by Robert Silverberg, director John Ridley works from his own adapted screenplay. An Academy Award-winning screenwriter for “12 Years a Slave,” Ridley is wildly off the mark in his first feature directorial effort since 2013’s Jimi Hendrix biopic “Jimi: All Is by My Side.” If making a notorious bomb is every director’s rite of passage, let’s hope this is Ridley’s only one and he can move on.
Many of Nick’s conversations occur on the phone, namely with his sister Zoe (Jadyn Wong), whose sole characteristic is that she has a best friend who only speaks Portuguese even though Zoe does not. The entire first act feels oddly low-budget, like they couldn’t afford to have the actors in the same room for too long. If it’s an effect of pandemic limitations, it only vaguely works in the movie’s favor, with Nick often appearing alone and isolated in his own confusing timeline.
Irrelevant side characters pop up in mundane conversations throughout the drama, and suddenly we’re meant to care about the friends who adopt a baby or a couple getting a divorce. Like Zoe’s odd sub-plot with her Brazilian friend, Ridley seems to have gotten bogged down in the minutiae of the short story, not knowing where to trim the fat even with relatively thin material.
But the weirdest part about “Needle in a Timestack,” more than the unnecessary focus on time-traveling liquid or Tommy’s struggle to find genuine friends as a rich white guy, are its uber-conventional musings about love and relationships. When Zoe starts bemoaning monogamy, the movie seems to be presenting a kind of polyamorous dystopia, where the thought of having multiple relationships in one lifetime is a failure. Nick and Janine belong together, and no amount of disruption to the spacetime continuum can keep them apart.
One (meaning, men) must do everything in their power to protect their one true love. Love is a circle and all that, but where it stops nobody cares.
A Lionsgate release, “Needle in a Timestack” in now in limited theaters and VOD.
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