“We are born lost, but then we’re found. But we’re all just lost, am I right?”
That’s now Nyles (Andy Samberg) starts his impromptu wedding toast near the beginning of Palm Springs. While he later sarcastically claims he didn’t believe a word of his heartfelt speech about love, community, and belonging, that opening line is, in fact, the key to his entire character arc.
It also applies to Nyles’ connection with Sarah (Cristin Milioti), the sister of the bride, and Nyles’ eventual romantic interest. At the beginning of the film, Nyles and Sarah are both a little lost in their own lives, due to personal failings and regrettable decisions. The pair become literally lost when they’re stuck in a Groundhog Day-style time loop that forces them to relive the same day over and over. Palm Springs uses its romantic-comedy package and science-fiction trappings as a powerful metaphor for the ways we all repeat self-destructive patterns of behavior. Its characters need to be found—by themselves and by each other—to escape an endless cycle of sin and death.
In Romans 7, Paul describes his frustration with his own sinful behavior. “Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me,” he writes. “For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me.” Because of humankind’s inherently sinful nature, we often end up acting against our own best interests and the interests of God. We see what is right, yet end up doing exactly the opposite, even if we know what the long-term outcome of that choice will be. Paul reminds us that, “thanks be to God,” we have Christ to repair our relationship with God, and save us from ourselves.
The characters of Palm Springs find themselves caught in a similar cycle of behavior—in this case, a literal representation of the self-destructive patterns they can’t escape. (Spoilers ahead.) After Nyles makes his speech at the reception, he attracts the attention of Sarah, who follows him into a cave out in the desert. There she discovers that Nyles has been reliving the same day—November 9, the wedding day—over and over after being pulled into a mysterious space-time rift. By following him, Sarah has put herself in the same situation. Whether they go back to the cave, fall asleep, or die, the two of them will always wake up back where they started on the morning of November 9.
Their reactions to this bizarre new reality differ. Nyles has already resigned himself to a meaningless repeat of the same events, injecting variety into the experience by living it up in the moment. He informs Sarah, for example, that he once made it all the way to Equatorial Guinea on a drug high, just to see if he could, before passing out and waking up back at the resort. Nothing he does has any consequences (it may be more than a coincidence that his name sounds like “nihilism”), so it feels pointless to do anything but coast through each repeating day. Sarah, on the other hand, fluctuates between Nyles’ assertion that nothing matters and a powerful need to move forward with her life. The pair also have to contend with Roy (J.K. Simmons), another wedding guest Nyles has inadvertently brought into the rift, and who is subsequently out for violent revenge.
TC Podcast: Time (Palm Springs, The Old Guard)
The film’s time-loop scenario serves to highlight the ways that the characters have been living through private hells of their own making, even before the day starts to repeat itself. Nyles is an adult in arrested development, stuck in a passionless relationship with a woman who’s cheating on him. Roy, when we first meet him, appears to have hit rock bottom in his marriage. Sarah is a bitter, selfish mess whose whole life is defined by impulsive actions.
By being forced to live the same day over and over again, the characters are repeatedly confronted with a specific low point in each of their lives. Individually, they realize they need to make a radical change. Nyles has to accept his need for meaningful relationships. Roy learns to appreciate his life for what it is, not what it used to be. Sarah, in particular, has to face down one of her darkest moments. She finally decides to break her established pattern of behavior completely and take responsibility for her own actions.
Once Sarah becomes determined to escape their situation, she spends the next several cycles teaching herself quantum physics, talking to experts, and running experiments to see how she might be able to practically get out of the loop. The moment Sarah starts to understand there may be a way out, there’s a galaxy-brain glow around her head, while a peaceful smile slowly spreads across her face. We get the sense that the reason for this isn’t just because she realizes she can escape the time loop, but because she knows that by getting out, she can finally start living a more fulfilling life.
Palm Springs presents an existential look at relationships and the way our codependency and self-sabotaging behavior can repeatedly undermine them. The movie also posits that if we’re honest about ourselves and value ourselves enough, we can pull out of that predictable spiral. In Romans, Paul demonstrates that Christ has already broken the cycle on our behalf. A spiritual life is a balance of understanding the ways we frequently fail, and leaning on the knowledge of our salvation to avoid dwelling in shame so we can live a faithful life in response. Living only in our sin is like living the same moment over and over again. By accepting Christ’s gift of grace, we can move forward.