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It’s probably best for audiences to leave the expectation of hard science out of the sci-fi in adapter-director John Ridley’s “Needle in a Timestack.” The futuristic romance is likely best viewed as a metaphorical meditation on the inevitability of love, rather than a time-travel adventure with a semi-logical foundation.
Based on a short story by Robert Silverberg, “Needle” finds Nick (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Janine’s (Cynthia Erivo’s) more-or-less happy marriage disrupted by time shifts. In this world, time tourism (“jaunting”) is a neat outing for the rich (the story was written nearly four decades ago, anticipating the current notion of space tourism). Jaunters are not supposed to alter the timeline, which would be a “time crime,” but … you know. It turns out Janine’s ex-husband and Nick’s ex-best friend Tommy (Orlando Bloom) wants Janine back and has been monkeying with the past to save his and Janine’s marriage and erase Janine and Nick’s. When Tommy’s machinations finally succeed, Nick’s memories of Janine evaporate, but he senses something is wrong. Despite a happy marriage with Alex (Freida Pinto), with whom he had broken up in the other timeline, and with no knowledge of Janine in this one, he contemplates jaunting to change his path.
To enjoy the film, audiences will have to let go of ideas of causality, the butterfly effect, alternate timelines or any of that good stuff that causes complications in time-travel stories. This isn’t about any of that; it’s about choices that change lives and humanistic approaches that can make someone a better person. And, of course, it wonders whether some couples are meant to be — “Needle’s” eye isn’t unique; that quandary has been beautifully explored in films as different as “Heaven Can Wait” (1978) and “50 First Dates” (2004).
Unfortunately, this film doesn’t quite thread the needle. It’s missing levels that could drive the point home: Even when Nick is supposed to be happy with Janine, their scenes aren’t played at a distinctly different emotional pitch than when they’re not blissful or when he’s confused or depressed without her. There’s a cinematic heaviness to the proceedings that flattens those peaks and valleys. And nail-on-the-head dialogue such as the oft-repeated “Love is a circle,” “Always and all ways” and “I just want you to be happy” doesn’t help.
Odom, surely one of the busiest actors working today, gives a committed performance but lacks chemistry with either of his onscreen wives. A sense of lightness, of fun, of the alchemy between two people is missing, though it would seem crucial to drive the story. Bloom acquits himself well, especially in his final two scenes, and as Nick’s sister, Jadyn Wong is memorable.
It should be noted, as well, that the world of the film is diverse — remarkably so — without comment, and that it entirely works on that score. One just wishes the central romantic relationship had more deeply set its hooks in us, to invest us more in “Needle’s” outcome.
‘Needle in a Timestack’
Rated: R for some language
Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes
Playing: Starts Oct. 15, Laemmle NoHo 7, North Hollywood; also available on digital and VOD Oct. 15.
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