NEEDLE IN A TIMESTACK movie poster | ©2021 Lionsgate

NEEDLE IN A TIMESTACK movie poster | ©2021 Lionsgate

Rating: R
Stars: Leslie Odom Jr., Frieda Pinto, Cynthia Erivo, Jadyn Wong, Orlando Bloom
Writer: John Ridley, based on the short story by Robert Silverberg
Director: John Ridley
Distributor: Lionsgate
Release Date: October 15, 2021

NEEDLE IN A TIMESTACK is based on a short story by Robert Silverberg, published in a collection of his work by the same title in 1966. Writer/director John Ridley has adapted this into a feature film that has some intriguing science-fiction ideas and questions about the nature of romantic love.

Unfortunately, things don’t seem to be fully thought through. We are meant to be invested in the idea of people finding their way back to each other against all odds. NEEDLE IN A TIMESTACK sabotages itself so much in its first half hour that, while we remain curious as to what will happen, we don’t much care about the outcome.

NEEDLE IN A HAYSTACK starts with Janine (Cynthia Erivo), with a tear running down her cheek, making a recording of herself talking about the nature of love.

Janine is a photographer. We see that she is in what has been, at least until recently, a happy relationship with soulmate Nick (Leslie Odom Jr.).

Nick is an architect, but he’s much more preoccupied by both Janine and with what may or may not have happened in their lives.

In the world of NEEDLE IN A HAYSTACK, everyone has become accustomed to time shifts, which are like temporal earthquakes. The time shifts announce themselves with what look like tidal waves.

However, instead of leaving everything wet, they leave alterations in lives and memories, small and big. The changes can be anything from different objects in the home to a different home altogether to different spouses to possible erasure of children.

Even more problematic, the rich can afford to “time jaunt,” traveling to whenever they want in the past. While it’s illegal to alter significant events, the time travelers seem to do that often. They remember what they did, but everyone around them only remembers the previous version of the past for a few hours.

Nick suspects that Janine’s rich ex-husband (and Nick’s former best friend) Tommy (Orlando Bloom) wants her back. Nick further believes that Tommy has been visiting the past in an attempt to create a present where he’s still with Janine, and fears that major (if unremembered) damage may have already been done.

Given how time works in NEEDLE IN A TIMESTACK, these are reasonable concerns. Since the awesome Erivo plays Janine, we also accept that she’s worth fighting for, although the writing doesn’t give the performer much to do.

Where we really run into trouble is with Nick. Odom is an actor who has both charisma and conviction, but Nick is so obsessive and possessive from the outset that we can’t root for him and Janine as a couple.

Nick is shown to be so consumed with fear that Tommy may put one over on him that he seems to have totally lost track of Janine as a human being. The emotional through-line that should carry us through NEEDLE IN A TIMESTACK simply isn’t there. It’s possible that the movie’s most compelling and complex bond is between Nick and Tommy, but that’s not where the emphasis is.

Ridley does keep us intellectually interested in how things will all shake out, and also casts the charming Jadyn Wong as Nick’s loyal sister. We further get to see some uncommon-looking houses and Vancouver’s scenic great outdoors, and there are a lot of appealing folk/rock songs on the soundtrack.

The butterfly effect is pretty much ignored, but this omission and much more could be overlooked if we were just allowed to fall for the characters. As it stands, NEEDLE IN A TIMESTACK is well-made, mildly trippy, and feels like a half-remembered dream not long after it ends.

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