Needle in a Timestack is in theaters, On Demand, and digital on Oct. 15, 2021.
When you assemble a cast including the likes of Leslie Odom Jr., Cynthia Erivo, Orlando Bloom, and Freida Pinto, and you don’t feel entirely besotted with their hot-people romantic problems, you know a movie has failed spectacularly. Needle in a Timestack, based on the short story of the same name by Robert Silverberg, traps this A-list cast in an emotionally icy narrative that leaves no oxygen for love and romance to bloom.
Directed by John Ridley, the story is set in the near-ish future where everything looks like it could exist in our now, but the tech is just slightly more advanced. And this world looks extremely nouveau riche, or at least in the corner where architect Nick (Odom Jr.) and upscale photographer Janine (Erivo) exist. Together for five years, they stare at one another with starry eyes at the wine parties of their affluent friends, or while they eat the gourmet food that Nick whips up in their very bright and overly windowed Architectural Digest-level home. However, Nick still manages to whine to his sister (Jadyn Wong) that he always feels like he’s living in the shadow of Janine’s extremely rich ex-husband, Tommy (Bloom).
Why does he feel that way? As expressed in one of the most artful scenes in the movie, this reality is one that experiences time shifts, which look like waves of water that envelop the people in its path. They occur randomly, because time travel is a thing in this future and it’s available to the rich, who use it to revisit their pasts. And sometimes, they nefariously use it to tinker with timelines that will change the present to cater to their desires. Nick is convinced Tommy wants Janine back and has purposefully created time shifts that are working to separate them from one another.
It’s an interesting idea that feels like it could be a strong Black Mirror episode. However, the rules of this time tinkering are never really fleshed out. It certainly makes Nick paranoid and desperately worried that he could lose Janine, but is he really worried about lost love or more about the jerk he doesn’t like taking his wife? It’s hard to tell because Nick is the film’s point-of-view character and everything he does comes off as petulant or based in a simmering anger rather than actual love and passion for Janine. And that’s a problem if we’re supposed to be as in love with their story as much as the movie says the pair are with one another.
Suffice to say, the time shifts are a big element of the story, and we get to essentially explore three existences for Nick because of the inflicted changes, and one he inflicts upon himself. Unfortunately, none of those paths feature robust love stories where you’re happy to watch Nick with a partner that he appreciates fully. Janine and Pinto’s Alex are two gorgeous, independent, loveable women who are saddled with a guy obsessed with what he doesn’t have.
The overall vibe is not helped by Ridley’s odd camera framing and choice to place all the core characters in extremely cold environments. Every house and apartment looks like a place where someone should follow the characters around with coasters and dust rags so everything remains pristine and not an ounce lived in. Plus, the mostly natural soundscape only amplifies the frequent silences between the featured couples. When a few needle drops do appear, they’re jarring because of the overall lack of score. Ridley also seems to have an aversion for cutting between characters in any given conversation sequence, so we’re forced to experience mostly one-sided conversations in moments where it would benefit for us to see the reactions of both characters. All of it achieves a lack of intimacy that permeates the whole piece like a chilly fog, infusing every romantic pairing with emotional rigor mortis. Where’s the heat? Where’s the passion? It’s utterly lacking in every frame of this movie.
An attractive cast and an abundance of overly talky scenes with them about how much people love one another, or what love should be, or what they want love to actually be, doesn’t do enough to hit the romantic mark. It all comes across as deeply overwritten; all tell with no show.