“Why are men?” may seem like a provocative question, but in John Ridley’s sci-fi romance Needle in a Timestack, it’s a perfectly reasonable response. The film introduces time to travel to a world, but it is quickly dismissed as a means of saving past lives, achieving world peace, or halting a humanity-ending virus. (After all, who cares about other people?) Instead, Ridley creates a spiritual successor to stories like The Time-Wife Traveler’s and About Time, in which time travel is used to explore sentimental themes like soulmates, monogamy, and fate.
That is, admittedly, a welcome change of pace from the usual doom and gloom associated with time travel, such as in the Terminator franchise, The Tomorrow War, or 12 Monkeys. Needle in a Timestack, on the other hand, lacks the interior worldbuilding required to pull off its heartstring-tugging intentions, and as a result, the film unintentionally confirms how men who obsessively refuse to leave women alone never achieve anything good.
Needle in a Timestack was adapted and directed by Ridley, who won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for 12 Years a Slave. It was based on a decades-old short story by Robert Silverberg (reprinted recently in the anthology The Time Traveler’s Almanac, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer). After a career spent primarily in drama (Three Kings, Ben-Hur, the TV series anthology American Crime), Ridley’s first foray into science fiction is this (Martin, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Barbershop: The Series). Perhaps this is why the film lacks a lot of the genre details that would make this world seem more real.
It’s impossible to figure out how any of Needle in a Timestack’s time travel works. Rich people have easy access to time travel, but they are not allowed to alter the past because time-cops will punish them. But this is entirely a story about someone changing the past for their own selfish reasons, with no consequences! If the film is meant to be a critique of the wealthy who operate under different rules than the rest of society, it doesn’t make that clear — the lack of accountability feels more like a plot point that was dropped. What’s more damaging to the film is Ridley’s muddled handling of the effects of time travel.
Nick (Hamilton and One Night In Miami star Leslie Odom Jr.) and photographer Janine (Bad Times At The El Royale breakout star Cynthia Erivo) will be happily married in the not-too-distant future. “Would I still fall in love with you if I didn’t know you?” While watching Janine at a dinner party, Nick wonders. He obviously believes he would. Nick, on the other hand, is terrified of Janine’s ex-husband, the wealthy Tommy (Orlando Bloom), who has tried three times to change the past and reclaim Janine.
When a “time shift” occurs, which Ridley imagines as a wave-like whoosh of air crashing over and through people, Nick is terrified — and then enraged when he learns that Janine has met with Tommy in secret since their divorce. He believes she is concealing more information from him. Meanwhile, Tommy enlists Nick’s ex-girlfriend Alex (Freida Pinto) to assist him in changing the course of everyone’s lives. These four were once friends, but now they’re attempting to undo and unravel each other’s decisions.
“Time shifts” or “phases” in some scenes cause broad changes for everyone in the present, while in others, the effects are only temporary or only affect one person. What is the source of these disparities? Who is in charge of this technology? How is it governed? How is it that this near-future version of the United States has easy access to time travel but no clear way to protect memories, other than printing out photographs and having an employee scan them and store the data in a cloud vault? (Also, in this hazy sci-fi future, do malls still exist? Really?)
Those questions may seem petty, but they stand out because the film’s inconsistencies complicate the romantic relationships that are supposed to be at the heart of the storey. Ridley’s primary narrative focus is on the four main characters, and he pits them against each other in various ways to explore the suspicions, regrets, fantasies, and desires that come with marriage.
Janine and Alex, on the other hand, are so sketched-out that they aren’t given equal weight in this quad. As a result, Needle in a Timestack devolves into a tedious account of two insecure men fighting over the women in their lives. To balance out the genre’s endless space-opera epics and dystopian blockbusters, cinematic sci-fi can and should include smaller-scale, intimate stories, but Needle in a Timestack is a hollow attempt at matching personal emotional stakes with a high-concept sci-fi idea.
Ridley quickly divides these characters into varying pairs after introducing them, so it’s up to the actors to imbue his self-serious script with the emotional grit he’s desperately attempting to achieve. The outcomes vary from scene to scene. The problem is that there is a disconnect between how the film portrays these characters and how their actions actually appear. While Odom’s portrayal of Nick is convincingly anguished and protective of his wife, his lack of respect for Janine’s agency and choices isn’t the loving gesture that the film implies.
Bloom plays Tommy on a single smug register, and while he masters the art of the punchable face, he lacks the wounded fragility that Needle in a Timestack demands later in the film. (Unfortunately, there is no timeline in which Nick and Tommy, despite their unresolved tension, fall in love.) And Pinto and Erivo are both limited by their characters’ flatness and the film’s lack of attention to what they want. What is it that Alex misses about Nick? What was it about Tommy that made Janine fall in love with him in the first place? Where are the specifics of these women’s lives to be found? Whatever vibrancy the normally charismatic Erivo and Pinto could offer is flattened by their positioning in this story as objects to be traded back and forth between the men. Dialogue like “Every time we fall in love, we’re just stealing a person from someone else” makes this cringe-worthy point particularly clear.
Needle in a Timestack insists that some love is just meant to be, regardless of how the rest of the world works. (The line “Love is drawn in the form of a circle” is sung solemnly by several characters.) One of the most common tropes in time-travel stories is that nothing that happens in the past can completely alter the present. Needle in a Timestack is difficult to get lost in because of Ridley’s unwillingness to meaningfully grapple with that ideological stance, as well as his apparent inability to see that his male protagonists are actually exhausting.
Needle in a Timestack debuts in limited theatrical release and for digital and On Demand rental starting Oct. 15, with a Blu-ray and DVD release on Oct. 19.