A Less Lonely Sci-fi

Or Why The Old Guard and Palm Springs Are the Perfect Quarantine Movies

*****

Spoilers for both Palm Springs on Hulu and The Old Guard on Netflix
You should watch both! They’re good!

*****

Whether they’re about the lone survivor in a post-apocalyptic wasteland or a lone astronaut stranded in the void of space, sci-fi sub-genres are often focused around the concept of vast, incalculable loneliness. One could probably trace the origin of these types of stories as an appeal to the prototypical introverted sci-fi fan and outsider culture, but I’m not quite smart enough for that undertaking. Instead, I want to talk about how two recent streaming-only sci-fi films- Palm Springs and The Old Guard– take two of these typically lonely subgenres and inject new life into their worn tropes by making them about companionship and hope in the face of overwhelming loneliness.

Palm Springs is the newest entry in the Time Loop subgenre popularized by 1993’s Groundhog Day. In the time since, it’s become all but expected in any sci-fi TV show to include a time loop episode, and movies like Edge of Tomorrow and Happy Death Day have appended that concept to military action and slasher horror, respectively. The main signifier of the subgenre is that the protagonist is stuck in a single-day loop. No matter what choices they make or how the day ends, they are cursed to repeat it in perpetuity. When we join Andy Samberg’s Nyles in Palm Springs, he’s already been stuck in said loop for years, if not decades. This is the first way it undercuts what viewers have come to expect from the genre- we’re almost always shown the protagonist’s first experience with the loop, and the stages of grief and acceptance they progress through as they come to understand their situation. Nyles already has it all figured out. He’s lived this friend-of-his-girlfriend’s wedding in Palm Springs thousands of times already. This is the fewest number of words to convince my girlfriend to have sex, this is the easiest way to get drugs, this is the best possible wedding speech. Because the movie assumes its viewers are familiar with the genre, it’s able to imply Nyles’ journey off-screen and use its runtime to build something else with it. It’s not only a participant in the subgenre, it’s a reaction to it.

Review: Andy Samberg's 'Palm Springs' is fun but missing the city ...

The next way the movie subverts genre expectations is by adding a companion into the mix. Enter Cristin Milioti’s Sarah, the older sister of the bride and consistent family disappointment. She becomes enraptured by Nyles’ perfectly practiced charm, and accidentally stumbles into the time loop with him as a result. She becomes an accelerated stand-in for the aforementioned audience-expected progression of someone stuck in a time loop. She goes from “what’s going on,” to “let’s have some fun with it,” to “what’s the point of it all,” to “how do we get out” in record time, thanks in large part to Nyles’ familiarity with the situation. As he says, it’s “one of those time loop things you might have heard about.” Nyles’ nihilism (get it?) vs. Sarah’s optimism becomes the main conflict of the movie. Letting the two exist as foils for each other within the loop, who are both fully aware of the situation and have differing opinions on it, is in direct opposition to Groundhog Day’s journey of self-discovery and empathy. Bill Murray’s Phil Connors is alone in his loop. If he confides in someone about his situation, they forget by the next day. This makes his experience an intensely lonely one. His journey is personal, about figuring out how to better himself and learn to empathize with those around him, even when “none of it matters.” Nyles and Sarah’s dual journeys, then, are about learning to rely on each other and learn from each other’s points of view. The ultimate thesis of Palm Springs is that a mutual loving relationship can itself be a path to self-betterment, and you don’t have to be in ‘it’ alone (whether ‘it’ is a time loop or just day-to-day life).

 

Similarly, The Old Guard takes another one of the oldest and most pervasive sci-fi/fantasy tropes and evolves it by adding companions. The Old Guard is about a team of immortal super-warriors who have existed for centuries (or possibly millennia) as humanity’s protectors. Charlize Theron’s Andy and her team have fought countless battles, always choosing the side they believe to be just. Their routine is shaken when a new immortal awakens- Kiki Layne’s Nile. (Yes, I understand it’s confusing that one movie in this piece features Andy Samberg playing Nyles and the other features two characters named Andy and Nile. I’m acknowledging it here and pushing through.) A near-death experience for Nile that she miraculously survives is followed by strange visions that lead Andy and Nile to each other. Nile’s juvenile disbelief at her situation, culminating fairly quickly in acceptance mirrors Sarah’s accelerated growth (and audience-facing exposition) in Palm Springs, just as Andy and Nyles’ veterancy within their situations mirror each other. Immortality stories often follow a familiar pattern- immortality is proven to be a curse as you live out the years and watch all your loved ones grow old and die around you. Without the inevitability of death, immortal protagonists become lonely and detached. Nile is instructed by another member of the team to let go of her familial attachments. They’ve all seen their families die and been powerless to change it. The difference here as compared to most immortality stories is that the immortals have each other to lean on.

How Charlize Theron trained for 'The Old Guard' action scenes ...

 

While Palm Springs’ main relationship is a romantic one and The Old Guard’s is one of found family, both are about how relying on others for support can get one through the loneliest of situations. This makes the timing of their releases (as coincidental as they likely were) perfect for their messages. People around the world have been quarantined in their homes for as long as five months at this point. Many are lucky to be stuck inside with their family and loved ones, but many more aren’t. It can feel hopeless to live the same day over and over without scenery changes or different people to interact with. It’s easy to feel powerless as the world turns around you and society moves in directions you have no control over. Both of these films offer messages of hope and community- you’re not alone in this. It’s easy to say “we need uplifting media” right now, but it’s especially crucial that these films remain optimistic while speaking to the current times. Both films come to the same conclusion: the love and support of others in similarly difficult situations can get you through difficult times. The difficult times might be beyond your control, but they’re best navigated with a friend.

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