Phil: “Well, you can; it just takes an awful lot of work.”
The dialogue is from Harold Ramis’ 1993 neo-Buddhist, modern-day Purgatorial and archetypal example of “practice makes perfect” film, Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray. For the uninitiated, Groundhog Day (or The Black Hole of Love as it is translated in Brazil) is the story of cynical weatherman Phil Connors, and the almost endless time loop cycle he goes through repeating the same day over and over again. Through his attempts to break free of this cycle, he learns more about love, life and humility.
Groundhog Day’s central theme of looking beyond your own desires and committing yourself to other people is accessible and relatable to all religious doctrines: Christian, Buddhist, Jewish or Cylon. The song that wakes Phil up each repeated day, Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You Babe,” affirms this message with lyrics emphasizing living simply and for others. All of this clearly builds up Phil Connors as a hero, right? Au contraire mon frère.
The traditional hero of myth is one who is called upon, endures trials and sacrifice, and emerges (mostly) victorious in the end. Phil goes through all of these things in his time loop, even death (11 deaths, precisely), solidifying him as a hero archetype. At the end of the film he has broken free of his prison of repeating days by changing from selfish to selfless. But is he really redeemed? Has he really changed for the better? My simple answer is no, but my real answer is longer, more complex and (for me) much more fun.
Shortly into the time loop, Phil starts playing his knowledge of future events to his advantage, which is very villain-like behavior (similar to Biff Tannen from Back to the Future Part II, on a smaller scale.) He uses this edge to achieve money, sex and temporary cures to his seemingly eternal boredom. Now you will probably argue that Phil has done many good deeds to achieve his “freedom,” and therefore he is in fact a hero. This is the obvious answer which Groundhog Day freely provides as the resolution; therefore it is the answer that I reject. I submit to you that Phil Connors is neither hero nor villain, but has become something else entirely.
After the dark point in the film where Phil’s series of suicide attempts fail, he comes to the assumption/realization that he is a god. “I’m a god, I’m not THE God…I don’t think.” While we are led to believe that Phil is simply an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances, perhaps his guess wasn’t so far off of the mark after all. Perhaps our protagonist is what I shall refer to as “Phil Connors: God of Mischief/Temporal Scientist (IN 3-D!)” Phil is locked in his repetitive prison for an indeterminate amount of time in which he gains all sorts of new knowledge (French, piano and ice sculpting for example.) What if through his growing knowledge of culture and the predictability of the repeating Groundhog Day, Phil became more than human? It is with this fantastical lens that I approach and label the character as “God of Mischief/ Temporal Scientist,” gentle reader.
Those of you familiar with Norse mythology – or at least Thor and The Avengers – you will be aware of the God of Mischief, Loki. Like Loki in Thor, Phil spends much of the time loop just screwing with people. He steals money from the bank, he leads the cops on a wild car chase and he tricks a woman into sleeping with him; the world (or at least the town) is his playground. There is no tomorrow, so there are no consequences. No one remembers what he has done, except perhaps the bartender. ASIDE: I have always thought that the bartender (who witnesses Phil’s multiple attempts at wooing Rita) is fully aware of the time loop that Phil is in, as he gives Phil a knowing glance after one of his attempts. Theory: Phil and the bartender are actually god-brothers who have been imprisoned in this time loop together but neither of them remembers who they really are, ala Hancock, that strange superhero/god Will Smith movie. END OF ASIDE
Phil asserts that “maybe the real God uses tricks, you know? Maybe he’s not omnipotent. He’s just been around so long he knows everything.” Phil has had to have been around a very long time to observe and remember everything that will happen in his repeated Groundhog Day. This is where the “Temporal Scientist” part kicks in. Being a weatherman, Phil Connors is a man of science, predicting meteorological patterns. Perhaps there came a point in the time loop where he simply became curious to see the butterfly effect of how people and events will react with the slightest change. FUN FACT: The creator of the “Butterfly Effect Theory” is Edward Lorenz, who initially tested his theories on the weather…coincidence that Phil is a weatherman? Probably, but it is still pretty awesome.
So as God of Mischief/Temporal Scientist, Phil is the next level of human evolution, one that has the knowledge and capacity to predict the likelihood of outcomes of a given event. He is a near-omnipotent higher being who sees most outcomes (See also: Watchmen’s Dr. Manhattan, Fringe’s Observers and Marvel Comics’ The Watcher.) Phil is a genie genius in a bottle, trying to figure the best way to escape. So instead of saying that Phil is a changed man and is therefore rewarded with freedom, I subscribe to him being a powerful entity that is trying to break free. Using his deductive skills and endless experience, he breaks the cycle by figuring out exactly what to do and exactly how to do it. He alters the circumstances in just the right way where he is released from his time loop prison. In this case, that means being a good person and helping others. But has he changed? I say to you again dear reader, he has not.
“But Michael, why waste your time on this silly and excessively overthought topic?” you might ask. “Why not do something more productive with your time?” My answer is this: Maybe I’m in a time loop of my own, and if you didn’t like this article today maybe you’ll like the version of it that I write “tomorrow” better.
Happy Groundhog Day.