It’s a trope defined by one film, but like all fascinating tropes used so many other TV shows, films, and video games, the time loop has become a storytelling tool used by countless creators in the service of unique stories.
And like any tool, what makes them fascinating is they can be used in different ways. The list below focuses on Groundhog Day-esque narratives where each repetition resets everything — at least at the beginning, though for many of these narratives things eventually change from loop to loop. (This is why you won’t find time travel narratives like Terminator or Looper on this list.) But even with such restrictive criteria, there are still plenty of great stories told about what it’s like when you have the opportunity/curse to relive the same period of time, over and over again. Our favorites are below.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer – “Life Serial” (TV)
In Season 6 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy’s (Sarah Michelle Gellar) feeling a bit adrift after that whole coming-back-from-death thing, and it doesn’t help that there are three pesky dudes trying to take over Sunnydale. In the episode “Life Serial,” said dudes put Buffy through a series of trials, one of which includes a magic spell that causes her to repeat the same customer interaction at the Magic Shop over and over again. Almost as good as the execution of this sequence is the hat tip to narratives that have come before (and you’d better believe also appear on this list):
Andrew: I just hope she solves it faster than Data did on the ep of TNG where the Enterprise kept blowing up.Warren: Or Mulder, in that X-Files where the bank kept exploding.Andrew: Scully wants me so bad.
It’s admittedly only one aspect of this episode, but fun enough to merit inclusion here. – Liz Shannon Miller
Community’s best concept episode is less of a time loop and more of a time tree, branching off into six different scenarios spawned from the very same moment. We’re still including it here because A) It’s one of the best sitcom episodes of all time, and B) There are no rules, life is chaos, watch the episode. Directed by Jeff Melman and written by Chris McKenna, “Remedial Chaos Theory” sees Jeff (Joel McHale) toss a dice during Troy (Donald Glover) and Abed’s (Danny Pudi) housewarming party, creating six extremely different timelines. Some are perfectly okay. Some feature Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) having a mini pie-fueled breakdown, others early sparks fly between Troy and Britta (Gillian Jacobs), others still see Pierce (Chevy Chase) get shot by Annie’s (Alison Brie) hidden gun and dying. It’s a beautiful piece of work that subtly illustrates everyone’s integral role in this found family, but also it features Troy losing his larynx because he tries to eat a flaming troll doll. Community—like life, like time—always had layers. – Vinnie Mancuso
Edge of Tomorrow (Film)
Tom Cruise rarely dies in his films, even while personally performing truly death-defying stunts, so there’s something weirdly satisfying about Edge of Tomorrow, a movie exclusively devoted to watching him die, over and over again. Cruise plays a PR man winds up as an infantryman on the front lines of an alien invasion. During the battle, he’s doused in the blood of a special alien and forced to relive the day endlessly. Based on a Japanese “light novel” and notoriously difficult to adapt (at least eight screenwriters took a stab at the story), Edge of Tomorrow works largely because of the chemistry between Cruise and an equally committed Emily Blunt, who plays a warrior who was stuck in a similar loop but broke free, and the perverse joy of all the inventive ways that director Doug Liman ruthlessly murders the world’s biggest movie star. (Also the monsters are really weird and creepy.) Edge of Tomorrow loses momentum towards the end, when Cruise escapes his loop (and the dearly departed Bill Paxton leaves the movie altogether), but chances are you’re having so much fun you hardly even notice. Liman, Cruise, and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie have all hinted that a second installment is on the way, but with two more Mission: Impossible movies on the way from McQ and Cruise, it might be a while before we can watch him die again. – Drew Taylor
The Endless (Film)
If you have not seen The Endless, kindly get the hell out of here, go watch it, and then come back because I can’t really get into what makes this one such a special entry here without going full-spoilers. Filmmakers and stars Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead took the world they built with their debut film Resolution and expanded it in their 2018 semi-sequel, which starred the duo as bickering brothers and former cultists who reunite with their old cult members in search of answers and discover the horrifying truth hiding in the mountains where they live. In short, it’s a Lovecraftian god-monster who gets its jollies by trapping people in nightmarish and deadly time loops, seemingly just for its amusement.
As this list demonstrates, the time loop is a very familiar genre convention, but usually, it’s used a framing device for the entire story. In The Endless, we see all kinds of time loops, little bubbles of suffering checkered across otherwise unremarkable desert terrain, each a self-contained story in its own right. There’s an arsenal of evocative and horrific imagery in the film, but none more effective and bone-chilling than the old-timey soldier who gets only seconds between each brutal end, the artifacts surrounding him serving as a brutal reminder of how long he’s been stuck in his hell. Benson and Moorhead bring a fascinating approach to a familiar genre by incorporating it as an element to a larger world wherein you might find a strange and powerful red flower growing on mountains, where small totems point to the cracks between realities, and where any unfortunate soul wandering the land might just get stuck repeating their worst nightmare for eternity. – Haleigh Foutch
Palm Springs (Film)
Palm Springs is kind of a perfect time loop movie. The film puts a twist on the time loop formula by starting with Andy Samberg’s character having already been stuck in the loop for a very, very long time. The day he’s reliving over and over again is at a wedding in Palm Springs, and one night the bride’s sister accidentally gets sucked into the time loop with him. Understandably, she’s pissed. But the film constantly surprises, as it not only delivers as a hilarious time loop comedy, but also as a sweet and endearing romantic comedy with a complex female lead who’s allowed to be just as goofy, fallible, and imperfect as the male lead. The film also touches on notions of existential dread and nihilism, but at heart it’s a film about how existence is meaningless without other people. And that’s, uh, kind of relevant right now. – Adam Chitwood
Groundhog Day (Film)
Groundhog Day is a classic for a reason. Yes, it’s the touchstone most people use for a “time loop” because of how clearly the film relays the mechanics of how a time loop works. But it also endures because it dares to dig a little deeper. Director Harold Ramis and star Bill Murray famously clashed while making this movie over the correct balance between comedy and philosophy (Murray pushed for the story to get more introspective), and it’s this creative push-and-pull that really creates the perfect balance. Groundhog Day is uproariously funny, but it’s also poignant and sad as Murray’s character exhausts his selfishness and begins empathizing with people other than himself. Just because the day resets doesn’t mean the kid who falls out of the tree doesn’t get hurt, or the homeless man doesn’t die. Phil Conners begins to care about other people, time loop be damned. And I think that’s a big reason why this movie is still so beloved. – Adam Chitwood
Happy Death Day (Film)
Originally devised ten years earlier as a starring vehicle for Megan Fox (produced by Michael Bay, no less), Happy Death Day was concocted as a subversive of classic slasher movie tropes by comic book writer Scott Lobdell. While the project languished in development hell (a different kind of purgatory-style time loop) it caught the eye of Christopher Landon, a veteran of the Paranormal Activity series, who streamlined the story and amped up the goofiness. The time loop in question befalls Tree (a super charming Jessica Rothe), a bitchy college student who is forced to uncover the truth about her own murder – on her birthday, no less. The concept of a victim having to relive the same day over and over again until they solve their own murder is an ingenious one. And it allows Landon and his collaborators to indulge in all sorts of romantic comedy tropes alongside the scary stuff (Tree, of course, grows as a person and falls in love). Equal parts funny and thrilling, Happy Death Day feels like a modern classic of sorts, one whose success isn’t merely reliant on the gimmick of the time loop structure. A sequel, Happy Death Day 2U, released last year (and also totally amazing) doubles down on the time travel mechanics and offers different, even stranger charms. Landon has repeatedly teased a third film; we’d give anything to live this franchise again (and again and again). – Drew Taylor
The Incredible Shrinking Wknd (Film)
I caught this one at North Bend Film Fest in 2019 and despite a modest budget and familiar setup, it’s really stuck with me. The Incredible Shrinking Wknd finds a young woman trapped in a terrible time loop during a weekend retreat with her friends that always ends with her boyfriend dumping her (and usually a pretty gnarly hangover to go with it.) But there’s a twist! Each time the loop repeats, it gets a little bit shorter (hence, the “shrinking” part of the title). It’s a simple but effective caveat to the familiar time loop rules, each new repeat bringing the thematic focus and human truths she’s struggling to reach closer and closer into focus. The film also indulges a pretty nifty cinematic trick that took me several loops to catch onto. Credit to the performances for being so engaging in a rather lowkey but high-concept affair. – Haleigh Foutch
The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (Video Game)
How do you top The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, arguably the greatest title in the Legend of Zelda franchise? That’s the question Nintendo found themselves asking in the wake of the success of OoT, the first of the franchise to go 3D on the then-current N64. Game directors Eiji Aonuma and Yoshiaki Koizumi, along with EPs Shigeru Miyamoto and Hiroshi Yamauchi, found themselves rather short on time if they wanted to capitalize on that success as soon as possible with a direct sequel. It turns out that time wasn’t just their enemy, but their ally as well. That idea served as the core of the story that would become The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask.
Created and brought to market in just two years, the sequel is set in an alternate reality to the one gamers experienced in OoT. Now in Termina, Link must save this parallel world and its inhabitants from a cataclysmic collision with a falling moon. And the player has only three in-game days to do it, translating to less than an hour of real-world game time. The catch here is, that’s not enough time for you to succeed. The genius stroke from the creative team — no doubt inspired by their own clever shortcuts to getting the game made under a time crunch — was to introduce beefed-up time-controlling mechanics set within a repeating three-day cycle. If Link manages to reset the clock and return to the morning of the first day, the player’s progress will be (mostly) saved; if not, well, the moon destroys Termina.
This clever mechanic really opens up the story, allowing Link an almost god-like prescience of future events, like the paths certain NPCs take and where to find them to solve their individual quests. It also introduces that Groundhog Day feel to the gamers who experience the same things over and over again while trying to figure out how to break the loop the proper way. (And I’d imagine it’s a heck of a game for speedrunners to master.) So while Majora’s Mask absolutely deserves its cult status for a brilliant use of time in the narrative, the control over it, and the much-more-magical masks and lore than its predecessor, the most satisfying part of playing the game is in breaking that time loop and watching as a new day dawns. – Dave Trumbore
Legends of Tomorrow – “Here I Go Again” (TV)
“It was only a matter of time before we did one of these,” Nate Heywood (Nick Zano) says as soon as he learns the Waverider is caught in a time loop and buddy, the enthusiasm is warranted. The most delightful corner of the Arrowverse known as Legends of Tomorrow effortlessly plows through at least 15 genres per season, so it’s no surprise its season 3 take on the time loop — ”Here I Go Again” directed by Ben Bray, written by Ray Utarnachitt & Morgan Faust — nails every trick and trope while still feeling as refreshing as ever. After uploading new tech into the Legends’ ship, newcomer Zari (Tala Ashe) finds herself trapped in an endless repeat that always ends with the Waverider exploding, killing everyone on board. Like most of Legends of Tomorrow, “Here I Go Again” manages to be both consistently hilarious and surprisingly moving, but it’s also a clever way of initiating Zari on to the team in a single hour; because she’s forced to work together with each member again and again (and again), she gets a lifetime’s worth of their best traits without them even knowing. A definite highlight in a show that’s filled with truly insane highlights, as well as, in a grand display of irony, just an endlessly rewatchable episode of television. – Vinnie Mancuso
The Magicians – “Oops!… I Did It Again” (TV)
The Syfy series The Magicians was never shy about trying ambitious types of storytelling, but it took until its fifth and final season before the show tackled a time loop. In a stroke of brilliance, “Oops!… I Did It Again” traps Eliot (Hale Appleman) and Margo (Summer Bishil) in the same time loop — one in which the world ends at the end of the day. What sets this episode apart is that Eliot is suffering a depressive spell, and Margo succeeds in getting out of the time loop without him. This forces Eliot to step up, confront his demons, and figure out a way out of the loop all by himself. As is indicative of The Magicians as a whole, this episode is funny, sexy, sad, and poignant all at once, and it’s a testament to the show’s range that it’s able to hold all this comes together in one cohesive and satisfying piece. – Adam Chitwood
P.T. (Video Game)
A fascinating, unique, and utterly terrifying video game experience. P.T. stands for “playable teaser,” and its initial function was, indeed, to serve as a proof of concept downloadable demo for a forthcoming chapter in the Silent Hill survival horror franchise, co-directed by Hideo Kojima and Guillermo del Toro and starring Norman Reedus. In fact, if you solve a gloriously obtuse puzzle at the end of P.T., you can see a brief look at what was to be called Silent Hills, featuring a digitized Reedus in all his glory. But due to fractions and differences between Kojima, widely considered a phenomenally eccentric video game auteur (not just Silent Hill, but Metal Gear Solid as well), and the publishing company Konami, Silent Hills was scrapped, leaving P.T. an abruptly standalone experience. Except, it wasn’t even “left” for that long — Konami actually removed P.T. from the PlayStation store and didn’t allow players to reinstall it, vaulting the game into a furiously loved cult object, with PlayStation 4 consoles that have the game selling on eBay for not small sums. Luckily for y’all, I got to play it before it was pulled.
I’m a big fan of horror in all mediums. I know the tricks, the tropes, the trade. But my genre savviness could not save me from the immersive nightmare that is P.T. It fucked my shit up hard. I lost sleep over it. And a big part of its scary success comes from its time loop structure. The first-person game starts with you walking through a hallway. This hallway leads you through a house’s living room, with a couple of rooms available to explore, some common living room items you can look at, and a staircase leading up. At the end of the living room is a door, which leads to… the exact same hallway. And the exact same house. Over and over again, you walk through this same corridor and home, stuck in time. There are minimalist puzzles to solve, and once you do, you’ll notice your environment begin to change. The loops become haunted by ghosts — including the very literal, very jump-scare inducing Lisa (friendly name, not so friendly spirit). What you’ve gotten so used to gets invaded by surreal horrors, disquietingly corrupted messages, and the revelation of a domestic disturbance so vile it’s hard to even think about. P.T., if you can play it, will fuck your shit up and then make you wallow in the same shit over and over again. A provocative masterpiece. – Gregory Lawrence
Run Lola Run (Film)
A blast of propulsive techno music, medium-busting filmmaking imagination, and intense split-second decisions made three times in a row — all in a blissfully tight 80 minutes! Tom Twyker’s Run Lola Run was released in 1998, and instantly became a cult classic, an energetic dismantling of what American film audiences usually expected from “prestige foreign films” that made it to their market, a self-aware, muckraking Bonnie & Clyde (But Mostly Bonnie) destined to be immortalized on film school dorm room walls forever. Franka Potente stars as the titular Lola, her striking red hair and unbending spirit making an immediate impression. Her lowlife criminal boyfriend, played by Moritz Bleibtreu, has left a bag of 100,000 Deutschmarks on a train. That money needs to get to the hands of a criminal boss, or Lola and her boyfriend are toast. So Lola… runs. She tries lots of different ways to get the money as quickly as possible, from playing roulette to robbing a damn bank. Her warp speed journey is lensed and cut with aggressive energy, Twyker even occasionally allowing the film to burst into animated flights of fancy. And when Lola fails, sometimes even by dying… the film simply resets, giving her a chance to try again. Run Lola Run, despite its film-bro-baiting style, gunplay, and engagement with classic crime flicks, is an ultimately optimistic tale about love conquering no matter what. And sometimes that “no matter what” means trying again, and again. – Gregory Lawrence
Russian Doll (TV)
Few storytellers have played with the time loop format quite as cheekily and creatively as Natasha Lyonne, Leslye Headland, and Amy Poehler do in their Netflix series Russian Doll. What sounds shockingly similar to Happy Death Day at first glance transforms into a unique and compelling character drama built around a self-sabotaging woman (Lyonne) who can’t stop dying on her birthday. Each horrific death leads her back to the beginning, the start of the same underwhelming birthday party in a sickening loop until the series necessarily shakes up the rules of the world, stretching the conventions of the genre to push towards more emotionally-grounded, character-driven territory. Lyonne is a wildfire hoot as a woman as unable to control herself as she is her surreal circumstances, and Headland’s signature sexy-but-acerbic stylings are wielded with delicious precision. Throw in the fact that the great Jamie Babbit directed the only episodes Headland and Lyonne didn’t helm themselves, and you’ve got one of the best creative dream teams in recent memory. Settle in for a wild, wickedly clever ride but be prepared for the confused looks when you can’t stop saying “sweet birthday baybeeee.” Oh, and you’re definitely gonna get Harry Nilson’s “Gotta Get Up” stuck in your head. – Haleigh Foutch
Source Code (Film)
While Edge of Tomorrow may be the superior “time loop as an action movie” film, Duncan Jones’ Source Code is still a ton of fun. This is a compressed time loop story, as Jake Gyllenhaal’s character only has eight minutes during each loop to try and identify a bomber before a train blows up. The twist here is that this is actually a simulation — the train crashed, and Gyllenhaal’s character is using this simulation to try and track down the bomber before he strikes again. Matters get complicated when Gyllenhaal falls for a woman on the train (Michelle Monaghan), and the film gets wonderfully deep with its sci-fi. Indeed, Source Code’s greatest strength is how it leans into the science-fiction aspects of the narrative vs. a more wish-fulfillment type of time loop story. – Adam Chitwood
Star Trek: The Next Generation – “Cause and Effect” (TV)
Perhaps one of the oldest examples of this trope, and also, perhaps, one of the best. There’s nothing like an episode of Star Trek that begins with the ship blowing up, and even though the audience knows things will be fine by the end, the way in which “Cause and Effect” reveals its secrets is a beautifully paced example of what intrigues us most about these narratives. Bonus points for the ending, which features an unexpected Kelsey Grammer cameo. There are more existential entries on this list, but on a plot level this is a perfectly calibrated adventure in time. – Liz Shannon Miller
Boasting one of the sharpest screenplays I’ve ever seen, and rendered in thrillingly effective low budget panache, Timecrimes is the kind of movie best seen knowing nothing about it beforehand. But if I must: Héctor (Karra Elejalde) lives in the Spanish countryside in a house being renovated with his wife Clara (Candela Fernández). When Clara leaves to get some groceries, Héctor notices a woman (Barbara Goenaga) sunbathing in the forest… and a masked man with a weapon behind her. Héctor’s investigation into this man leads him toward a mysterious stranger (Nacho Vigalondo, also the film’s writer/director) with a mysterious device. And when that device is used… look out. The film’s relationship to time travel and time loops is complicated yet accessibly communicated, resulting in lots of jaw-dropping revelations that will nevertheless feel inevitable the moment you realize them. The “same thing” does happen over and over, yes, but not in the way a typical time loop movie is structured. Instead, it’s edited in a nonstop present tense that still takes into account all the temporal folds made along the way. Vigalondo’s work functions not just as a cerebral science-fiction experiment, but a visceral, tense suspense thriller, and even a commentary on the male gaze in that kind of story’s typical techniques. If that incredible Michel Gondry/Kylie Minogue music video was adapted into a David Fincher feature film, you’d have something close to the wonderful, original experience of Timecrimes. – Gregory Lawrence
Tangling up mythology, grief, and good old-fashioned slasher thrills, Christopher Smith’s underrated 2009 gem Triangle delivers a slick, satisfying spin on time loops. Melissa George stars as a woman heading out on a boat trip with a group of friends when they hit a rough patch in the Bermuda Triangle and wind up trapped on an abandoned cruise liner with a masked killer. What seems strange and new at first soon starts to seem familiar, a fact that only makes it scarier when they start to realize all of this has happened before, and all of it will happen again, and again, and again, next verse same as the first. Smith’s scripting and direction are clever as heck, first leaning into the surface-level thrills of such a promising slasher riff before opening up the world to a much more emotional, nuanced, and expansive existential horror you just can’t escape. There are some extremely smart visuals, skillfully designed images in this film I will never forget, specifically one involving a pile of corpses that makes a magnificent shorthand for the extent and duration of this hyper-repetitive hell, and while a first watch may leave you feeling a little confounded, a quick refresher on Ancient Greek mythology and a sharp-eyed revisit click everything into focus, making for one of the most rewarding and undersung time loop movies in the whole bunch. – Haleigh Foutch
The X-Files – “Monday” (TV)
Any excuse to rewatch The X-Files is a good excuse in my book, and if you’re looking for some time-loopy goodness, look no further than the Season 6 episode “Monday.” Mulder (David Duchovny) wakes up to find himself caught in a time loop, reliving the same morning over and over again that always ends with him being shot in a bank robbery just before the robber detonates a bomb vest and kills everyone inside. It’s an interesting take on the genre, because Mulder isn’t aware he’s in the time loop — the only person who is aware is the bank robber’s girlfriend, who begins trying to signal to Mulder that he’s repeating the same event. The episode was co-written by Vince Gilligan, and “Monday” is undeniably one of his best (outside of the Season 6 episode “Drive,” featuring none other than Bryan Cranston). – Thomas Reimann
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