“Why are men?” seems like a provocative question, but it’s an incredibly reasonable answer to John Ridley’s sci-fi romance Needle in a timeline. The film presents Time travel to a world, but quickly rejects it as a way to save past lives, create world peace, or stop a humanity-ending virus. (Who cares other people, do you know?) Instead, Ridley offers a spiritual sequel to stories like The Time Traveler’s Wife in the Over time, in which time travel is used for further sentimental ideas about soulmates, monogamy and fate.
Well, that’s a remarkable change in the pace of doom and darkness normally associated with time travel, as in the Terminator franchise, The Morning War, or 12 Monkeys. But Needle in a timeline lacks the inner world building necessary to hold back its heartbreaking intentions, and the result is a film that unequivocally 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 (recently printed in the anthology The Time Traveler’s Almanac, edited by Ann Jeff VanderMeer), Needle in a timeline was adapted and directed by Ridley, who won the Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award for 12 years a slave. This is Ridley’s first strike in sci-fi after a career spent mostly in drama (Three kings, Ben-Huer, the TV series Anthology American crime) and Comedy (Martin, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Barbershop: The series). Maybe that’s why the movie lacks so many of the genre details that this world really does.
It is impossible to decipher how one of the time travel works Needle in a timeline. Wealthy people can easily travel time, but they should not change the past because Time cops punish them. But this is it quite a story about someone selfishly changing the past, and having no impact at all! If this is supposed to be a commentary on the realm operating in different rules than all the others, the film does not make that clear – the lack of accountability feels more like a fallen plot point. But what makes the film even more damaging is the confusing way in which Ridley handles the effects of time travel.
In the near future, the architect Nick (Hamilton in the A Night In MiamiStarring Leslie Odom Jr.) and Photographer Janine (Bad Times In The El Royale Outbreak star Cynthia Erivo) are happily married. “If I did not know you, would I still love you?” Nick asks Janine to have dinner. He clearly thinks he would. But Nick is also obsessively worried about Janine’s ex-husband, the wealthy Tommy (Orlando Bloom), who has used three time trips to change the past and get Janine back.
Whenever there is a “time shift” presented by Ridley as a wave-like breeze of air blowing over and through the crowd, Nick is consumed with fear — and then anger when he learns that Janine secretly met Tommy since their divorce. He suspects she is hiding more from him. Meanwhile, Tommy calls in Nick’s ex Alex (Freida Pinto) to help him change the course of her entire life. Once upon a time, these four were friends, but now they are trying to circumvent and develop choices.
In some scenes, “time shifts” or “phases” create broad changes for everyone at the moment, while in other effects are only temporary, or only have an impact on one person. What causes these differences? Who controls this technology? How is it regulated? How about this near-future version of the US easily accessible time travel, but no clear way to protect memories, except by printing photos, then visiting a mall store to scan an employee and data in a vault in the cloud? (Also, do malls still exist in this dizzying sci-fi future? Really?)
These questions may sound nitpicky, but they stand out because the inconsistencies of the film severely complicate the romantic relationships that are intended as the center of the story. The four main characters are clearly Ridley’s primary narrative focus, and he confronts them in different ways to discover the suspicions, regrets, fantasies and desires that come with marriage.
But Janine and Alex are so barely outstretched that they lack a fair amount of weight in this square. Also Needle in a timeline is just a boring tale of two insecure dudes who are engaged in a little tug-of-war about women in their lives. Cinematic sci-fi can and should be popularized smaller, intimate stories to balance the genre’s endless space epic and dystopian blockbuster, however Needle in a timeline is a desperate attempt to fit personal emotional stakeholder with a high-concept sci-fi idea.
After introducing these characters, Ridley quickly calls them in varying pairs, so that it falls to the actors to develop his self-serious script with the emotional grit he so desperately tries to achieve. The results are mixed from scene to scene. The question is the gap between who the film thinks these characters are, and how their actions really come about. As Nick, Odom is faithfully afraid and protective of his wife, but his clear lack of respect for Janine’s agency and choice is not the kind gesture the film says it is.
Bloom plays Tommy in a single smuggler’s register, and even though he perfects the art of having a stretched face, he does not shy away from the wounded fragility Needle in a timeline demands later in the film. (Ah, 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 due to the lack of attention the film pays attention to what si want. What is Alex missing from Nick? What made Janine fall in love with Tommy in the first place? Where are the details of these women’s lives? Whatever vibration that normally offers charismatic Erivo and Pinto, is placed by their positioning in this story as objects that are negotiated between men back and forth. Dialogue like “Every time we fall in love, we just steal one person from another” makes this crucial point particularly clear.
Needle in a timeline repeats over and over again that a love is just meant to be, no matter how the world around it works. (More than one character celebrates the line, “Love is drawn in the form of a circle.”) Certainly a common trope of time travel stories is that nothing that anyone does in the past can completely change the moment. But Ridley’s unwillingness to fight meaningfully with that ideological stance, and his apparent inability to see that his male protagonists are actually exhausting, does Needle in a timeline hard to lose.
Needle in a timeline debuted in limited theatrical release and for digital and On Demand rental starting October 15, with a Blu-Ray and DVD release on October 19th.