Nick (Leslie Odom, Jr.) and Janine (Cynthia Erivo) are deeply in love – or at least that’s what Needle in a Timestack wants us to believe. The couple lives in a near-future where time travel is not only possible but something the rich do for fun. This leads to so-called “time shifts” that change the past just enough to alter the present in small ways, like turning Nick and Janine’s dog into a cat. People treat time shifts as an inevitable fact of life, but Nick fears Janine’s wealthy ex-husband, Tommy (Orlando Bloom), is trying to change the past to get Janine back, a fear that’s validated when a time shift leaves Nick married to his college ex-girlfriend Alex (Freida Pinto) and with an unsettling feeling that something’s not right.
Needle in a Timestack, which is based on a short story by Robert Silverberg, is meant to be a meditation on big topics like true love and the way our choices impact our lives. Yet, while those ideas are intriguing, writer and director John Ridley, who’s best known for writing the screenplay for 12 Years a Slave, doesn’t delve into any of them with enough depth to create a satisfying story.
None of the movie’s characters have much dimension either. Nick is so preoccupied by what Tommy might do that he comes across as insufferably jealous and unable to enjoy what he has with Janine. While he’s ultimately right about Tommy’s plans, it’s still hard to muster much sympathy for him, and therefore, a challenge to invest in his plight. Besides, although Janine seems lovely, so does Alex, and Odom’s chemistry with both Erivo and Pinto lacks heat, making it hard to understand why it’s so important that he make his way back to Janine other than the movie requires it.
As a result, the longer Needle in a Timestack goes on (and at an hour and 51 minutes, it feels long), the less the narrative holds together. The premise leads to all sorts of questions, including what happens when something as potent as time travel is only available to those who can pay for it and why society hasn’t come up with a better way to regulate the practice (early on, the movie mentions laws against changing the timeline but it’s never brought up again). Ridley glosses over all of this and instead offers up hokey platitudes about love and time; “Love is drawn in the form of a circle,” Janine intones in the opening moments of the film, an observation that’s repeated throughout the film – although it’s never clear why this only seems to apply to Nick and Janine and not their relationships with Alex or Tommy.
A lot of this would be easier to ignore if it were approached with a lighter touch, but Ridley treats the story with such heavy-handed seriousness, it feels oppressive. The movie brings up a bevy of interesting ideas, each of which could make a fascinating film, but Needle in a Timestack‘s insistence on clinging to an unconvincing relationship makes it bland and boring.