The two big movies of the weekend are, by default, Max Barbakow and Andy Siara’s Palm Springs on Hulu and Gina Prince-Bythewood and Greg Rucka’s The Old Guard on Netflix NFLX . The former was acquired by NEON for a record $17,500,000.69 at this year’s Sundance festival, where it was intended to play in theaters nationwide before becoming a Hulu streaming title. Alas, coronavirus-related misfortune changed the plan and it’ll play at select drive-ins this weekend as it debuts on Hulu. The latter was always intended for Netflix, but I digress. Both the Andy Samberg/Cristin Milioti comedy and the Charlize Theron/KiKi Layne thriller are both eerily similar in theme. Both, featuring nearly immortal protagonists wrestling with a painfully redundant life devoid of finite value and consequence, have become unexpectedly and ironically relevant to our moment in time.
Palm Springs is one of the more inventive variations on the time loop/Groundhog Day formula. That’s not much of a spoiler, as we get the big picture reveal about 15 minutes into the 91-minute fantasy, with the rest of the film spent contemplating the emotionally grotesque implications of living the same day over and over again. The twists, again revealed pretty quickly, is that A) our protagonist (Samberg, as melancholy as we’ve ever seen him) has already been stuck in this loop for a very long time and B) it’s possible to pull others in the loop with you and C) there’s no obvious way to end the loop. This isn’t Russian Doll, Before I Fall or Happy Death Day, where being a better person or confronting an existential crisis will allow tomorrow to be “tomorrow.”
The seeming impossibility of escape for our heroes adds a different layer of pathos to a sub-genre that usually deals with self-actualization and self-improvement. That’s not to say that they don’t arguably become somewhat better people, but it’s merely a desperate attempt to give their lives meaning when their day-to-day actions have no larger consequence. No matter what they do in this genuinely creative and witty character play, the next day is never the next day. With the caveat that I liked most variations on this formula (save for Source Code, which cheats), Palm Springs is among the best, partially because A) the romantic comedy is a fun sandbox for this sub-genre and B) the film discards the mystery/puzzle box elements and focuses on the emotional implications. If tomorrow never comes, what’s the point of today?
That Barbakow and Siara have crafted a film that dives headfirst into the emotional subtext of these time loop movies and TV shows while still making a laugh-out-loud mainstream entertainment is a glorified miracle. I can see why NEON thought this one might actually break out as a mid-summer counter-programmer alongside the conventional seasonal blockbusters. Samberg and Milioti are in peak form (alongside a wonderful J.K. Simmons in a role I won’t reveal), and this is the second time that the Black Mirror actress has become unwillingly ensnared in a fantastical time loop/alternate universe scenario. That Palm Springs would not only lose its wide theatrical release due to a global pandemic only to debut alongside another movie wrestling with many of the same themes (in an action movie sandbox) feels both bitterly ironic and cosmically fitting.
In her first directorial effort since Beyond the Lights (she spent time tangled in a Spider-Verse spin-off that never made it past development), Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Old Guard is penned by Greg Rucka and based on his comic book about mercenaries who also strive to make their lives meaningful despite being almost immortal. Yes, they (led by Charlize Theron) will eventually die, but they won’t age past a certain point (presumably when they first died) and they have lived for a very long time. In that time, they have seen the world they’ve tried to protect only get more violent and more chaotic. While the film takes time to focus on the implications, it’s mostly window dressing for a conventional action flick that often plays like set-up for the sequel or a pilot for a Netflix episodic.
It’s not as egregious as Jem and the Holograms, Fantastic Four or Artemis Fowl, but The Old Guard is mostly a 124-minute journey to get to a new status quo, one that is left to be exploited in a theoretical next chapter. Along the way, our heroes uncover a new immortal (Kiki Layne), and get ensnared in a plot to use their “abilities” to cure disease. The scenes where characters talk to each other are frankly better than the (well-staged and coherently edited by Terlyn Shropshire) action sequences, if only because A) our heroes are unkillable and B) the film doesn’t really dwell on the morality of slaughtering faceless security guards/private soldiers. Chiwetel Ejiofor adds quite a bit as a sympathetic antagonist, but the end-of-movie status quo is more interesting than the movie we just watched.
Alas, the action is almost painfully conventional, and the A-plot is almost irrelevant, and thus the best moments are where characters discuss how the “can’t die” variable has wrecked them emotionally and psychologically. For example, Matthias Schoenaerts gets a grim monologue about watching everyone you love grow old and die, while Theron is haunted by a colleague who ended up eternally punished. The one area where The Old Guard stands out in its unapologetic and comparatively casual LGBTQIA representation. Two of our heroes (Marwan Kenzari and Luca Marinelli) are a couple, having met and fallen in love while fighting on opposite sides during the Crusades. There is an unapologetically cheesy romantic monologue at around the halfway point that acts as a dare to shame the major studios and the major franchises to do better in this arena.
It struck me how the weekend’s two biggest (by default) new movies, the excellent romantic comedy and the merely okay (but worth seeing) action flick, are both rooted in the trauma and challenges faced when mortality and consequence are removed from the equation of one’s day-to-day existence. It may be simplistic to say that both films sting ever sharper in an era when many of us are trapped in a certain day-to-day irrelevancy, both due to the current pandemic and because our voices seem to be ignored (or willfully mocked) by those in power. However, differing quality and artistic goals notwithstanding, both feel exceptionally poignant today than they might have under more conventional circumstances. Palm Springs, which debuts on Hulu tomorrow, and The Old Guard, premiering on Netflix tomorrow as well, make for a fascinatingly of-the-moment double feature.