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SCI-FI CIRCUIT: Insights from 'Needle in a Timestack'

SCI-FI CIRCUIT returns with what you can learn from both a storytelling and structural standpoint from the new sci-fi film 'Needle in a Timestack'.
[L-R] Leslie Odom Jr. and Orlando Bloom in the romance/sci-fi film, NEEDLE IN A TIMESTACK, a Lionsgate release. Photo courtesy of Lionsgate.

[L-R] Leslie Odom Jr. and Orlando Bloom in the romance/sci-fi film, NEEDLE IN A TIMESTACK, a Lionsgate release. Photo courtesy of Lionsgate.

Needle in a Timestack is a time-travel romance focused on whether or not true soul mates will always find each other, no matter what happens to them, their memories, or time itself. Directed by John Ridley, and based on a short story by Robert Silverberg originally published in Playboy magazine in 1983, Timestack explores an intriguing nexus of love, memory, and time travel.

Though many reviews of the film have been less than glowing — and raise valid points — I viewed Timestack through the lens of what I could learn from it.

Here are seven of my key takeaways.

1. Begin with a compelling, personal, emotional opening.

Science fiction can often feel cold, sterile, even practical, particularly when there’s a lot of backstory to deliver. Timestack, however, opens with a powerful, personal, and compelling opening delivered by actor Cynthia Erivo, who plays Janine, the wife of Leslie Odom Jr’s character Nick.

Erivo’s voice and presence are beautiful and mesmerizing, and set the mystical, romantic, and even metaphysical tone for the story, right from the start. We instantly know there is love, sadness, grief, and loss in this story, and it’s personal, and immediate.

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2. Study the art of efficient explainers.

Beyond the romance genre the film establishes early, we’re also quickly introduced to the sci-fi elements of the story as well through the use of efficient explainers.

One of the treats of a good sci-fi film is getting to see some kind of new technology demonstrated. Between a new flip smart phone, digital pages to turn on a tablet, and the beautifully rendered time shifts, Timestack honors the “demonstrate new technology” convention of science fiction, and does it quickly, showing how this new tech is part of day-to-day life. No explanations needed.

On the other hand, some things do require a level of telling. Timestack uses one of the most efficient explainers I recall seeing. Early on, a strange energy wave travels toward the office building Nick (Odom) works in. After it passes, the woman next to Nick curses, saying, “These f**king time shifts.” Through the character’s reaction, we instantly know so much about the world the story and characters inhabit: time shifts happen, and they’re disruptive, common, annoying, and frequent. The characters further react by reaching for their phones; their boss tells them to go ahead and call home, to make sure everything’s okay. From there we quickly learn how the time shifts impact people — things can change in their lives, where they live, who they’re married to, what pets they have, what they’re wearing — from large to small, their lives may change. Worse, they only have a few minutes after a time shift where they may remember the time before, until those memories are long forgotten.

Study this art of efficient explanations to transfer sci-fi backstory and world-building to your audience.

3. Explore big ideas in a personal context.

Sci-fi does well when it both explores big ideas and keeps it personal. How might regular time shifts affect the lives of every day people? What kinds of concerns would they have? What would they worry about? How would it affect them?

The main character, Nick (Odom), indulges himself in fearful, controlling jealousy and doubt. Is his beautiful wife Janine’s wealthy ex-husband Tommy, played by Orlando Bloom, traveling through time, trying to break them up and get her back for himself? Nick reads like a fearful, obsessive man, on the verge of pushing away a woman he clearly loves beyond reason and who — although she clearly loves him passionately — struggles with his behavior and fantasies of harming Tommy by time traveling himself.

Although Nick is far from perfect, he is human in his flaws, pettiness, and not-unfounded jealousy. Timestack’s big questions about life, love, fate, and time thus have a personal lens through which we can explore them.

[L-R] Cynthia Erivo and Orlando Bloom in the romance/sci-fi film, NEEDLE IN A TIMESTACK, a Lionsgate release. Photo courtesy of Lionsgate.

[L-R] Cynthia Erivo and Orlando Bloom in the romance/sci-fi film, NEEDLE IN A TIMESTACK, a Lionsgate release. Photo courtesy of Lionsgate.

4. Don’t let time travel questions unravel the story.

Another convention of most time travel sci-fi is to include some kind of illustration about how the time travel mechanism works, but Timestack doesn’t exactly fulfill this brief — except through the most basic offhand comments about time crimes being committed if you change someone’s past significantly (though it’s unclear how that would be found out). Otherwise, we’re mainly left to wonder and piece together how it works through the character’s reactions and understanding of their lives in a reality where time travel is readily available, at least to those with the means to pay for it.

Generally, I found the lack of a time travel explanation didn’t bother me because I was focused on the relationship elements of the story. Peter Sobczynski says, arguing that the short story gets away with this while the film does not, “Anyone attempting such a story needs to tell it in as clean and efficient of a manner to avoid inspiring those mood-destroying questions, at least until after it's over.” To my mind, the minimal time travel explanation in this story worked well enough to not become distracting until after having watched the film, when I had time to mull over some of the complications and paradoxes created by it. Other reviewers disagreed. This may be a gray area for writers to explore: What’s the level of time travel rationale that works for you?

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5. Reckon with universal themes.

Speaking of conventions, another powerful convention of sci-fi is reckoning with both universal and current themes. In Timestack, one of the aspects I found most compelling was the impunity with which the world’s super rich are able to make life-altering decisions for the rest of the world. With enough money, you can “jaunt” through time and alter others’ futures. The parallels to our own timeline are readily evident: billionaires launching rockets, engineering social algorithms, impacting the climate, influencing elections, and setting up missions to Mars. It’s a great challenge of our time, that the ultra-wealthy can have such outsized impact on the rest of us and potentially the course of human history. Timestack takes this idea and spins it further down field. What’s fair when it comes to having money, and how the choices made by world’s richest people guide and create the future we get to live in? Something worth thinking about.

When writing sci-fi, keep in mind the big questions and themes you’re interested in and want to bring to life on screen for contemplation, reflection, and perhaps even to point out inequity or make an embedded call for change.

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6. What stories do we want to tell about women?

As some reviewers and commentators point out, Timestack tells the story of two men vying for what feels uncomfortably close to ownership of a woman and her affections, as well as another character, Nick’s sister (Jadyn Wong), seeking to control the fate of her best friend’s life. The film walks a difficult line between romance, rescue, power struggles, ownership, and fate, and seemingly has blind spots about the way the story removes agency from the primary female character, though Nick’s sister at least passingly acknowledges that they’re fighting over Janine “like cave men.”

The negative reviews and comments beg a number of questions. Do we want to perpetuate romance storylines where men believe they have the right to control a woman’s future because they believe they belong together? What if they do “belong” together, according to both characters? What if your memories have been altered, and you don’t actually know anymore where you “belong” or with whom. If someone was trying to destroy your relationship with someone you love, would you fight back? Is there romance in that storyline? If the gender roles were reversed, would the story feel any different? Would that make it any less right or wrong?

Whether you agree with the reviewers or not, there’s a question here about what we want to normalize and perpetuate through our storytelling. Sci-fi is a genre particularly well-suited to exploring complex issues, turning old paradigms inside out, and reflecting on the kinds of stories we want to tell.

7. A different take on a villain.

(Spoilers)

Although John Ridley says of his film, “There is no villain. There is no bad person,” when it come to Timestack, Orlando Bloom’s character Tommy Hambleton is positioned as the likely villain: a wealthy, selfish man determined to stop at nothing to break down Nick and Janine’s relationship and reclaim his ex-wife’s affections. Early on, Nick even makes comments that hint at a standard Hollywood mano a mano showdown.

This story takes a different path, however, toward something more restorative than the traditional battle, something I’ve taken to calling a “collaborative” ending. Rather than a final, fierce oppositional battle against an antagonist, a collaborative or restorative ending sees the characters working together, healing a wrong, or restoring something for the better. (As another example, think of the end of Moana, where Moana heals Te Kā, the lava demon she’d originally set out to conquer, rather than destroying her, thereby restoring the beloved island goddess Te Feti in the process.)

Late in Timestack, Nick — no longer even remembering Janine, just knowing that something’s wrong with the life he has — makes a restorative change to the timeline that heals his opponent’s past in multiple powerful ways, making a new pathway to what he wanted (but forgot) in the first place: to be reunited with his soul mate. This sets him up for a twist on the standard fare of the “final battle.” Nick does in fact overcome something, but it’s the lost, self-absorbed part of himself he triumphs over, even in the haze of a time-shifted confusion, before he finds his way back to where he belongs.

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***

Though Timestack faced scrutiny for the relationship structures it normalizes, its excellent cast, intriguing theme of a wealthy elite impacting others scot-free, painful lessons around loss and love, and thought-provoking questions about time and memory gift it with redeeming qualities and useful genre takeaways nonetheless. 


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