Redemptive Time Travel in Harold Ramis’s Groundhog Day (1993)

doctor who     The concept of time travel is a complicated one, invoking both fantasies of visiting past and future events that we were not or will not be alive to see, and raising scientific debates about the plausibility of time travel. Time travel is the focus subject of many major science fiction and fantasy works including Doctor Who, (Doctor Who, 2005, pictured above) The Time Machine (Wells, 2012), and stretching back to pre-H.G. Wells literature such as Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (Dickens, 2012). Science scholar and author Paul Nahin states that ‘time travel is the ultimate fantasy, the scientific addition to the human quest for immortality’ (Nahin, 1999: 3). Nahin expresses the desirable nature of time travel; not only would it allow us to save loved ones from death, but we would be able to visit any moment in time. The theme of time travel in fantasy fiction however may leave the possibility of time travel as just that – a fantasy, and not address the scientific possibilities of it. Time travel is evident in genres other than fantasy and science fiction, but it may instead be illustrated through human memory.

     When we look through old photographs, or replay a past experience in our mind, we indirectly time travel by accessing aspects of our past through memory. We may not have a physical presence there, but it is a form of time travel that does not create any obvious paradoxes. Bruce Goldstein in his analysis of episodic and semantic memory, states that ‘the defining experience of episodic memory is that it involves mental time travel’ (Goldstein, 2008: 187, italics in original). He raises the issue however that when revisiting old memories in our mind, those memories may not be exact representations of the original event. If it is not possible to create a time machine, then perhaps the only way to visit the past is to view it as if it were a film, which is how it may appear in our memory, in home videos, or in photographs. These memories however, as Goldstein suggested, could be distorted by our emotional response to them, or we may romanticise the memory (especially when we perceive the past with a sense of nostalgia), and so we could in fact be mentally time travelling to an event that did not happen exactly as we remember it.

     Time travel through memory and photographs also addresses the human fantasy of bringing the dead back to life; every time we think of a loved one who has passed away, we are arguably giving them new life. Film scholar André Bazin explores how statues, mummies and paintings were created throughout history to preserve the image of a person if their body were destroyed. Bazin suggests that since the creation of film and photography, these new mediums have replaced the role of paintings to preserve life. He states that ‘the photographic image is the object itself, the object freed from the conditions of time and space’ (Bazin, 1967: 14). His statement suggests the role film and photographs play in preserving not just memory, but the life of those within it, allowing them to transcend time. Arguably, one of the most important roles memory has concerning backwards time travel is its impact on our present. That is, although memories may fade over time, life events, whether favourable or not, could be seen to leave a mark in our mind, much like Freud’s mystic writing pad. Freud suggested that memories are etched into our mind using a wax writing tablet (or ‘mystic writing pad’) as a metaphor to illustrate how the experiences written into our mind remain there. Even if the memories have faded over time, they leave a mark in the unconscious (Freud, 2001: 227-232). If we have a happy memory, it may be reflected upon with fondness. However, as humans are imperfect, it is inevitable that we will also have memories of experiences we wish we could change, perhaps because we said or did something we later regret. Thus backwards time travel if proven, would offer us a chance to redeem ourselves and rewrite our past. This is however, problematic.

     Physical travel through time has been debated by numerous physicists, philosophers and academics, and they have brought to light many paradoxes that would arise were backwards time travel possible. For example, philosopher David Lewis addresses the Grandfather paradox in which if a person, named Tim, travelled back in time to kill their Grandfather whom they detest, and Tim had everything he needed to kill him, he still would not be able to change the past. Lewis states that ‘the events of a past moment are not subdivisible into temporal parts and therefore cannot change’ (Lewis, 2010: 497). If Tim rewrote the past by killing his grandfather, then his father would not have been born and neither would he, leaving no one to go back into the past to change it. Another paradox has been illustrated by Richard Morris in his article exploring the problems of time travelling into the past. He proposes that even sending messages into the past could be problematic, for if we acted upon our human fantasy of saving loved ones from fatal accidents by sending them a message warning them, this would create a paradox. The example Morris gives is that if a loved one were to board a plane we knew would crash, and they acted upon a warning message we had sent them, resulting in them avoiding the flight and living, then we would have no reason to send them a message, thus creating a paradox (Morris, 1994: 60). Despite the problems that arise when considering the concept of time travel, it is still a fantasy that humans strive to make possible. After all, rewriting our past would allow us to change history to make it the way we would rather remember it, illustrating Goldstein’s notion of how the memory we have of the past can be distorted by various factors, one of which being how we view our personal history. Film and literature explore the fantasy of time travel in terms of characters using some form of time travel to reflect upon their memories of the past, and ultimately finding redemption by rewriting it. Sigmund Freud, along with the ‘mystic writing pad’ analysis, wrote extensively on the psychoanalytic theory of repression and memory, and this can be applied to examples found in both film and literature.

     Groundhog Day is a film about redemption, focusing on the arrogant and egotistical protagonist Phil (Bill Murray), who becomes stuck in a time loop, reliving February 2nd over and over again. At first he uses this to his advantage, remembering things from the previous day to manipulate characters into liking him. However, it is not until Phil has learnt from his past errors and changed his ways, using his time to selflessly help people, that he redeems himself and breaks the time loop. It shares similarities with Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in which Ebeneezer Scrooge is a horrid individual who is made to travel back through his own past, and reflect upon his mistakes, using this to affect his future decisions. Along with Groundhog Day exploring the results of a time loop, the film also experiments with the representation of external and personal time.

groundhogday6     In Groundhog Day, Phil’s external time is on a loop, lasting for twenty four hours and then jumping backwards in time to twenty four hours earlier rather than progressing to the next day. Phil’s personal time however, is continuous, and he can remember details of the previous repetitions of Groundhog Day. Lewis distinguishes between these temporalities as personal time being the time ‘of a particular time traveller… [as] measured by his wristwatch’ (Lewis, 2010: 493) and external time as the temporality that is independent to human experience. He illustrates this with a time traveller whose journey through time takes an hour of his personal time (that is the time it takes in his time machine to physically reach his temporal destination), and a specific amount of external time corresponding to how far back or forward he has travelled. Phil’s extended personal time allows him to use his God-like omniscience to manipulate those around him, playing with memory to remember facts about different characters, using that to his advantage.

     Phil’s superpower allows him to remember facts he has discovered about Nancy (Marita Geraghty), using this information in later versions of the day to manipulate her into thinking they were old school friends (thus implanting memories into her mind). Phil then attempts the same thing with Rita (Andie MacDowell), by remembering facts about her and using it to manipulate her into thinking they are soul mates. Whilst Phil is using his situation to his advantage, he is using it selfishly, keeping him from achieving the one thing which will break the time loop – redemption. Katherine A. Fowkes explores the reason for the time loop in Groundhog Day and explains that the time loop is much like a broken record and Phil’s ‘task is to figure out what will cause the needle of time to finally move forward’ (Fowkes, 2010: 101). Phil’s goal of redemption will only be achieved if he reflects upon the memories of his past experiences, and uses what he has learnt, not in the self-motivated way he does at the start of the film, but in a constructive way, to transform into an improved and more likeable version of himself. The reason for the time loop in Groundhog Day is not explained, but perhaps it can be understood through the application of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis of repression and the re-emergence of past memories.

     Freud’s theory nachtraglichkeit (translated as ‘afterwardsness’), explores how we understand events from our childhood to be traumatic at a later stage of life. For Freud (pictured right), a freudtraumatic event from our childhood is repressed into our unconscious, and is only reawakened when we experience a similar event in later life and understand the present experience, and thus the experience from our childhood, at that moment to be traumatic. Freud states that ‘in the case of repressed memory-traces it can be demonstrated that they undergo no alteration even in the course of the longest period of time. The unconscious is quite timeless’ (Freud, 1900: 274). For Freud the unconscious is atemporal, and so repressed memories, which remain unaltered, emerge when we are subjected to a repeated experience, allowing for the cause of the event to happen after the effect. When this Freudian theory is applied to Groundhog Day, the film can be understood to address Phil’s past mistakes that have built up in his unconscious over time, being dismissed by him in his present when he is criticised for his blunt remarks. These unconscious thoughts have then resurfaced on Groundhog Day when Phil is forced to face up to his past and change his ways.

groundhog     Fowkes suggests that Groundhog Day could be interpreted in a variety of ways – ‘everything from Buddhism, Christianity, and Judaism to Existentialism and even Wicca’ (Fowkes, 2010: 99). Whichever way the film is interpreted, they all suggest themes of redemption, the Christian reading for example being suggested by Fowkes to use the groundhog (pictured left) as a metaphor for Jesus, a symbol of rebirth and redemption’ (Fowkes, 2010: 99). Fowkes applies Jungian theory to the film to suggest that, whilst in Jungian theory the persona, that is ‘the public face that forms the psycho-social identity of the individual’ (Fowkes, 2010: 99), dominates whilst ‘the shadow represents repressed, socially unacceptable aspects of one’s personality’ (Fowkes, 2010: 99), in Groundhog Day, Phil is both unable to ‘perform’ both in front of the camera and in real life (in his attitudes and actions toward others). He is thus made to confront his shadow, leading to him finally ‘facing up to his reprehensible nature’ (Fowkes, 2010: 99), and redeeming himself. Whilst Groundhog Day addresses the theme of redemption, film itself can also be redemptive.

     The power of film to create an emotional response in an audience is one which is achieved through character identification. The spectator, as film scholar Thomas Wartenberg argues, finds themselves ‘becoming attached to a particular character on the basis of qualities… we possess or wish to possess, and… [indentifies] with [them]’ (Wartenberg, 168). A spectator may choose to watch a film based on the desire to identify with a film character, finding vicarious comfort in their screen double. Thus, they can experience things that the spectator wishes to avoid because they may be harmful or taboo, or delight in identification, experiencing events on the screen that they cannot in real life. In Groundhog Day, a spectator may not necessarily identify with Phil’s pessimistic and arrogant personality, but he is provided with the ultimate human fantasy – to travel back in time and rewrite his past, making the identification more desirable. Moments in the film illustrate Phil’s abuse of time travel to redo aspects of his personal history, for instance when Rita tells him that she studied 18th Century French poetry at college, Phil laughs and blurts out “what a waste of time!”, instantly regretting his blunt response. Using his ability to redo his day, Phil makes a mental note not to repeat that mistake, and instead amazes Rita with both his knowledge of French poetry, and his ability to speak French, implanting this rewritten day as the new memory of his past in his own and Rita’s mind. Similarly, once Phil has become bored with his life and has attempted suicide in several ways (he tells Rita he has “been stabbed, shot, poisoned, frozen, hung, electrocuted, and burned”), he is faced with real-life death and begins to reflect upon his own life.

1993, GROUNDHOG DAY     Phil has declared several times throughout the film that nothing he does has any consequence, (he spends his time attempting suicide, smoking, eating sugary foods because he believes it will have no affect on him), but he stumbles across an old tramp who is in need of both food and shelter. Once Phil helps him and has taken him to a hospital to be checked over, he later finds out that the man has died of old age. This is a turning point for Phil, who uses his future days not only to help the tramp by offering him food and shelter, but his memory of the exact times and places of others in need – a boy who falls from a tree, a man choking in a restaurant and three elderly women whose car breaks down, leads him to spend his time helping them. Not only that, but he uses his time to better himself by building up his skills of piano playing and ice sculpting. Phil, whilst at the Groundhog Day festivities with Nancy, is greeted by the many people he helped, thanking him for his generosity. His offer of help is sincere and selfless as Phil believes his actions have no consequence, indicating that helping other people should not matter. However, it is by Phil giving up his time to help others and change his arrogant and pessimistic attitude that leads him to ultimately redeem himself, waking up the next day to find that Rita is still with him and February 3rd has finally arrived and his and other’s memory of the previous day is the one in which Phil was a better man.

     Time travel is central to many human fantasies, but whether backwards time travel is possible is still contentious. Whilst Groundhog Day presents time travel as providing a simple way to rewrite your history and thus your memory of the past to redeem yourself, it suggests that true redemption, as Phil found in the end, can only be found by reflecting upon your past experiences and using that reflection to change your attitudes and future choices for the better. Not only does Phil find redemption, but through identification with him, the spectator may redeem themselves also of their past mistakes by learning from Phil’s transformation. Through redemption, even if the past cannot be rewritten, (as Goldstein suggested, memory can be distorted), your present actions can affect your own and others’ perception of the past, thus the road to redemption is strongly tied to the workings of human memory.


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About Enchanted By Film

1st class Film uni graduate who has a love for films old and new. I write for Diegesis and Film Matters film journals. Currently saving to do a Masters and PhD in Film. My ambition is to be a University lecturer on film and write about film academically. I also wouldn't mind working for the BFI or writing for Sight and Sound :-)
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2 Responses to Redemptive Time Travel in Harold Ramis’s Groundhog Day (1993)

  1. Great essay. I love how you focus on the more philosophical aspects of the film’s time-travel conceit. There is certainly a strong spiritual element to Phil’s quest for “redemption” but it is thankfully not presented in religious terms. Perhaps this is why people of so many different faiths respond to the film!

    Incidentally, GROUNDHOG DAY was shot in a town about 50 miles from where I live. I visited it last summer and took photos of the film’s locations:

    • Absolutely!! I feel that a lot of contemporary films and novels center their stories around the theme of redemption, and I found it was particularly evident in Groundhog Day. It is such a fantastic film too, and wow that is brilliant, I will take a look now 🙂

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