Tony winner Leslie Odom Jr. (“Hamilton) has been nominated for two Oscars. Tony winner Cynthia Erivo (“The Color Purple”) has been nominated for two Oscars. Writer-director John Ridley won one Oscar for “12 Years a Slave” and deserved another for his L.A. Riots documentary “Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992.” Any film would be fortunate to have just one of these talents, and yet, the combination of all three — plus Orlando Bloom and Freida Pinto — does nothing to enliven the dopey sci-fi slog that is “Needle in a Timestack.”
The title alone should be a red flag to anyone looking to have their neurons tickled and/or heartstrings tugged by a speculative near-future romance in which temporal tourism— that is, pay-your-way time travel for those rich enough to afford it — wreaks collateral damage on the lives of all those whose personal histories intertwine with the one doing the “jaunting,” as the process is called. The idea here is that a new industry allows elites to revisit moments from their past. Strictly speaking, they’re not allowed to change things, but when this much money’s involved, people tend to look the other way (which seems plausible enough, judging by such real-world gray markets as big-game hunting and sex trafficking).
Odom plays Nick, who’s married to Janine (Erivo). The movie insists that they’re soulmates, and if you believe that, then it might not be quite so painful jamming this “Needle” into your eyes. Unfortunately, for all their talk of love — most of which sounds like insufferable junior-high poetry, as when Janine repeats (and repeats and repeats again) the line, “Love is drawn in the form of a circle. No one can tell us when it begins, and it never really ends” — they don’t seem especially happy.
From the beginning, Nick is burdened by angst, worried that Janine’s ex-husband Tommy (Bloom) is trying to rewrite the past just enough that their marriage never ends, so Nick doesn’t meet her and they never wind up in the boring lives they’re so worried about losing. In most cases, if someone were going to tell this story, they’d do it from Tommy’s perspective, since he’s the proactive character here, whereas the relatively passive Nick is stuck riding the ripple effects of whatever mischief Tommy’s getting up to off-screen.
Those ripple effects — which look like giant CG tidal waves that come washing over the screen, rewriting the present in unpredictable but not insignificant ways — are the most interesting thing about the movie, which Ridley adapted from an old Robert Silverberg short story first published by Playboy magazine in 1983. The characters experience these shifts like small earthquakes, and for a short time after one occurs, they can still remember what their lives were like before, and then it goes fuzzy and they adjust to their new reality.
The first time we see it happen, things don’t change much, although Nick — who is definitely a dog person — comes home to find his beloved pooch Charlie has been replaced by a cat. What if the same thing were to happen to his wife, he worries? Would he still love her, even if they didn’t know each other? And then precisely that happens: Another shift washes over Nick and Janine’s world, and suddenly he finds himself in a car commercial … er, driving a Tesla down a wilderness road, and his futuristic flip-phone claims there’s no one named Janine among his contacts.
Can he get her back? And what can Nick’s new reality teach him about what his life might be like without Janine in it? The answer: He’s still a sullen, unpleasant guy, except now he’s married to former ex-girlfriend Alex (Pinto), so she’s the one who has to deal with it. Most time travel movies delight in cracking open the can of wormholes re: the logistics of meddling with one’s past — like, wouldn’t each change cause an alternate reality to branch off at that point, rather than rewriting the future from which the jaunter came? But Ridley doesn’t seem especially interested in how it all works. He’s far more preoccupied with the equally theoretical idea of love.
If you believe that there’s just one true match for us out there, to what lengths should someone like Nick go to get her back? “No one can make us not happen,” says Janine, though the line promises something a lot more exciting than the parallel realities Ridley takes us through. We want to see Nick in action (or at least active) hero mode, doing whatever he can to stop Tommy and save his relationship. But time travel is expensive, for both the characters and the independent filmmaker tasked with depicting it, so instead of watching Nick hunt for Janine like a needle in a you-know-what — a premise that could have supported an entire TV series — we get the budget version of that search. Talk about a waste of time.