January 4, 2022
by Carla Hay
Directed by John Ridley
Culture Representation: Taking place in unnamed U.S. cities, the sci-fi drama “Needle in a Timestack” features a racially diverse cast of characters (black, white and Asian) representing the middle-class and wealthy.
Culture Clash: In this time-bending story, two men and two women experience their lives differently when the men and women pair off as couples at different points in their lives.
Culture Audience: “Needle in a Timstack” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching a convoluted, poorly written and extremely dull movie.
Looking for a needle in a haystack is more fun than watching “Needle in a Timestack.” This excruciatingly dull movie tries to have a “musical chairs” approach to romance, but it’s ultimately a time-wasting bore with nothing to say. Unfortunately, this misguided movie doesn’t do much with its talented cast except give them snooze-inducing dialogue and scenarios that are just too ill-conceived to take.
“Needle in a Timestack” is based on Robert Silverberg’s 1966 collection of sci-fi short stories the same name. It’s easy to see how “Needle in a Timestack” screenwriter/director John Ridley thought that the intriguing concept of time-traveling changing the course of people’s romances that should be made into a movie. But this concept just turns into a haphazard mishmash of tedious scenes where the actors look almost as confused as viewers will be if they try to wade through this cinematic muck.
“Needle in a Timestack” is about two men and two women who have intertwined romances, but the main couple that audiences are supposed to be rooting for are spouses Nick Mikkelsen (played by Leslie Odom Jr.) and Janine Mikkelsen (played by Cynthia Erivo), who are the couple who gets the most screen time. Nick works in real-estate development for an architectural firm called Randall Corp. Janine is a photographer. Nick and Janine have been married for five years. (“Needle in a Timestack” takes place in the U.S., but the movie was actually filmed in British Columbia.)
The other two people in this quasi-love quadrangle are business mogul Tommy Hambleton (played by Orlando Bloom) and Alex Leslie (played by Freida Pinto), who are presented as possible threats to Nick and Janine’s love for each other. At various points in the movie, these couplings are shown: Nick and Janine; Tommy and Janine; Nick and Alex; and Tommy and Alex. The movie then plays a lot of tricks over which scene might be a flashback, an altered reality, or possibly a figment of someone’s imagination.
At first, Nick and Janine seem like a blissful married couple in love. When they’re at a house party together, Nick looks adoringly at Janine and says to her, “Sometimes, when you’re not looking, I watch you from across the room. And I ask myself, ‘If I didn’t know you, would I still fall in love with you?'”
The beginning of the movie shows that Janine has made a sad video of herself where tears are rolling down her cheeks. Janine says wistfully as she looks into the camera: “Love is drawn in the form of a circle. No one knows where it begins, and it never really ends. You and I, we are forever and always and all ways.”
Why is Janine so upset? And why is she talking like a cheesy Valentine’s Day card? The movie comes back to this video as a placemark to show viewers that Janine might know something that some of the other characters might not know. That’s because in this movie, memories and versions of reality can be erased by people who have the money to time travel and alter the fates of themselves and loved ones. Messing with fate in this way results in a “time shift,” which can usually be detected when people get nosebleeds.
Nick experiences a series of unsettling time shifts that are so alarming to him that he tells Janine that he suspects someone is trying to “erase” their marriage and possibly their memories of each other. Nick eventually figures out that Janine’s wealthy and jealous ex-husband Tommy is causing these time traveling manipulations because Janine broke up with Tommy, and Tommy is still bitter about it. When Nick confronts Tommy (who’s in charge of a company called Hambleton Solutions) about his suspicions, Tommy smugly replies by saying, “No one can really change the past. Just clean up the present a little.”
Nick is so sure that Tommy is going to erase Nick’s memories, Nick gets help from a company that sells Past Protect, which is described as a cloud service for storage of memories. People upload their photos and files on Past Protect to preserve memories. There’s some very manufactured and predictable drama about the Past Protect part of the story.
The rest of “Needle in a Timestack” sluggishly goes back and forth in different “realities” that show the four different couplings that happen between Nick, Janine, Tommy and Alex. None of these pairings is the least bit interesting or sexy, although the movie tries its hardest to make it look like Nick and Janine are the most “passionate” of the four pairings. The personalities of all these characters are so bland, it’ll be hard for viewers to remember much about the movie’s characters.
Odom and Erivo seem to be doing their best to play a convincing married couple, but their acting just seems a bit too forced in their love scenes. Bloom and Pinto look like they’re just going through the motions and reciting their lines. It doesn’t help that almost all of the dialogue in the film is awkward and stilted. (Trivia note: Odom and Pinto also portrayed a couple in the 2020 post-apocalyptic drama “Only,” which isn’t a very good movie but at least it’s much more interesting than “Needle in a Timestack.”)
“Needle in a Timestack” also has a time-wasting subplot about Nick’s neurotic younger sister Zoe Mikkelsen (played by Jadyn Wong), who’s a self-admitted commitment-phobe when it comes to romance. There are several tiresome scenes in the movie showing Nick and Zoe having phone conversations where Zoe constantly talks about her best friend Sibila (played by Laysla De Oliveira), who’s originally from Portugal.
Zoe invites Nick to go rock climbing with her and Sibila, but Nick declines the offer because he thinks rock climbing is too dangerous. And in a movie where people try to change something in the past that they didn’t want to happen, it’s very easy to guess what happens during this rock climbing trip and what someone wants to do to change it. However, this subplot didn’t need to be in the story and just seems like the filmmakers’ way of stretching the already thin plot even more.
It’s not as if Ridley is new to making movies from adapted screenplays. He won an adapted screenplay Oscar for writing the 2013 drama “12 Years a Slave,” a movie where he was also an executive producer. “Needle in a Timestack” tries to look like a movie that’s a mind-bending puzzle, but it’s really a series of scenes that are patched together like different people’s hazy memories. Much of the story becomes unfocused to the point where viewers might be wondering why this movie was even made. “Needle in a Timestack” can easily put viewers to sleep, so at least the movie is good for the purpose of curing insomnia.
Lionsgate released “Needle in a Timestack” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on October 15, 2021. The movie was released on Blu-ray and DVD on October 19, 2021.