Who doesn’t wish they could go back in time and fix a relationship that ended badly? In Oscar-winning writer John Ridley’s Needle in a Timestack, it’s not just wishful thinking but something people can actually do. The world he sets up is one where time travel exists and is a purchasable commodity for a select few, not unlike those who buy a seat on a space shuttle. This sounds like absolute chaos on a global scale, but this film isn’t concerned with that. Instead, its impact on a couple, soulmates really, whose relationship is tested by a time-traveling ex-boyfriend hell-bent on breaking them up.
The couple at the center of this time travel chaos is Janine (Cynthia Erivo) and Nick (Leslie Odom Jr.). In the beginning, we see Janine on video expressing her undying love for Nick through a veil of tears. When we see their actual relationship, they do indeed look happy, comfortable, and stable. She’s a photographer, him a successful urban planner. But one thing keeps hanging over their union and that’s Nick’s old friend and Janine’s ex-husband, Tommy (Orlando Bloom), who may or not be tweaking the timeline, changing little things. Have a dog one day, maybe a cat the next?
But is this necessarily true? Or is jealousy at the heart of Nick’s frustration? That’s the question Ridley teases in the beginning, and it’s an interesting one to play around with. Nick’s sister (an impressive Jadyn Wong) warns that it could be the thing that drives Janine away, giving Tommy what he wants without having to lift a finger. Even Janine is freaked out at the suggestion by Nick that he “jaunt” back in time to finish Tommy once and for all.
The premise as Ridley lays it out sets up a potentially riveting cross-time thriller. The time travel effect creates a literal wave across space/time, and people have just come to accept that nothing is ever set in stone anymore. If someone dies in your life, a ripple might reverse it. That Needle in a Timestack ignores the larger consequences is tough to get over because it leaves the movie feeling incomplete.
But the real problem is Ridley’s sluggish direction. Somehow, Ridley has mastered the art of making boring movies on fascinating topics, as he did years ago with his inexplicably leaden Jimi Hendrix biopic Jimi: All Is By My Side. The same problem drags down Needle in a Timestack, which hooks you with a great idea and is supported by a pair of nuanced performances by Odom and Bloom, the latter’s Tommy hiding his loneliness behind a mask of empty confidence. Odom is more convincing on his own as a man desperate to hold on to the unique love he’s found, but when paired up with Erivo their chemistry is nonexistent. Ridley is more interested in the idea of their perfect love than actually showing it.
Better, and more compelling by far, is the crumbling friendship between Tommy and Nick, destroyed by their mutual desire to mend broken hearts and wounded pride. Their love/hate bond takes some unpredictable twists and turns; they both need and desest one another at the same time, giving Needle in a Timestack its most believable relationship and the only one worth going through time to rescue.
Needle in a Timestack opens in theaters and digital on October 15th.