Needle in a Timestack, 2021.
Directed by John Ridley.
Starring Leslie Odom Jr., Cynthia Erivo, Freida Pinto, Orlando Bloom, Laysla De Oliveira, Alessandro Juliani, James Kirk, Hiro Kanagawa, Ulka Simone Mohanty, Gourav Shah, Kaylah Zander, Elizabeth Weinstein, Natalie D’Amico, Charles Singh, Samantha Hum, and Jadyn Wong.
Nick and Janine live in marital bliss until Janine’s ex-husband warps time to try to tear them apart. As Nick’s memories disappear, he must decide what he’s willing to sacrifice in order to hold onto – or let go of – everything he loves.
Implementing sci-fi elements such as time-traveling (referred to as “jaunting” here, “phases” that can alter certain aspects of the timeline (such as replacing a family dog with a cat), and an emphasis on lost memories or the fear of losing them, there’s more than enough mechanics at play in Needle in a Timestack to tell a uniquely compelling story. And for roughly the first hour, director John Ridley (an Oscar-winning writer not necessarily known for filmmaking, but nonetheless adapting the short story by Robert Silverberg) has a tense love triangle going with the twist that one of the characters could be selfish and malicious enough to commit a time crime rearranging the past so that he can be with the woman he wants back following an, apparently regretful, divorce. It’s also plain creepy, unsettling, and unfortunately, totally believable that this is how an unwell guy would choose to use time travel abilities.
Nick Mikkelsen (Leslie Odom Jr., gifted at shifting the character from paranoid into nuanced throughout each act) is in love with and married to Janine (Cynthia Erivo). Delivering a monologue in tears, the film opens with her assuring Nick that she will never forget him, that their love will endure forever, all while explaining that love flows in a circle with neither a beginning nor end. Still, while experiencing a phase at work (visualized as a sound wave sweeping across the area as it passes through everyone), Nick feels that it’s not a random occurrence and that is the work of their friend Tommy Hambleton (Orlando Bloom) blowing his wealth on repeatedly tinkering with the past in the hopes of emerging back into the present still married to Janine.
There is also fun to be had paying attention to the environments, especially the Mikkelsen home, looking for anything out of place. Meanwhile, Nick has a routine down calling Janine, asking each other a series of questions to make sure that they are still in a timeline where their love is not only intact but that they also know one another. Janine believes that Tommy, while hurting over no longer being together, would never go as far as changing the course of history to remain married. As such, there are some heated dialogue exchanges between Nick and Janine, with the former coming dangerously close to burning down his present idyllic life by fretting about effects that could be changed in the past. It’s also stated that they can’t go to the time police because Tommy has not committed a time crime, and there’s no way of proving that he is planning to do so. Not taking any chances, Nick signs up for a service capable of preserving memories even through timeline alterations.
There is another timeline shift, one where Janine is no longer in his contact list. One where they have yet to meet. Conveniently, the time capsule service is unable to help, although they are able to provide a half-second bit from a video stored of Janine. Confusingly, there’s also no time police, which is the first of many questions to be had trying to make sense of what’s happening (why even allow civilians to go back in time if there’s a strong chance they can change the past without punishment). Instead, Nick is married to Alex (Freida Pinto), a friend from the same life. At first, Nick is understandably freaking out and frantically looking for a solution, although he eventually realizes the futility in doing so and searches for happiness within his current marriage.
However, as Needle in a Timestack‘s narrative shifts, it loses its momentum, its appeal, energy, and focus. It also becomes overwhelmingly boring with conversations that go nowhere and a predictable climax set up from far away. And just in case you don’t catch on the first time, it’s tipped off twice by something Nick says. It doesn’t help that the characters of Alex and Tommy (getting more scenes during the third act) are blind. There’s a sensation that, in addition to the sci-fi playfulness, Leslie Odom Jr. and Cynthia Erivo were the fundamental driving forces behind Needle in a Timestack. Taking away that dynamic is fine and creates more conflict, but the only thing replacing it is an obvious message and tedium. There is also a weak subplot involving Nick and his sister Zoe (Jadyn Wong) that’s awkwardly woven in and brings up new questions, as her actions encourage Nick to seek out what he lost.
I also couldn’t help noticing that this movie was shot in 2018 and spent over a year in the editing room, most likely closer to two. It is something that’s felt every step of the way during that second hour, as if John Ridley got knocked into a timeline where Needle in a Timestack was doomed. All the potential and early intrigue go to another timeline, where this was hopefully a better movie.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com