[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for Palm Springs.]
For the past couple of months now, you’ve had people like me telling you to go into Palm Springs knowing as little as possible. Now that you’ve seen the movie, hopefully you appreciated that time loop twist (it’s the premise, but the film saves it as a terrific little reveal), but the ending is where the whole film really comes together in a beautiful way and you can see what director Max Barbakow and writer Andy Siara are going for with their meditation on the nature of existence.
Throughout the movie, we’ve seen two approaches to life. There’s Nyles (Andy Samberg), who believes existence is meaningless. He can’t die, no one remembers him except the guy trying to kill him (J.K. Simmons), and every day is the same, so you may as well have some fun and try not to care too much. It’s not worth worrying about the past or the future when neither exists in this time loop even though Nyles admits that he’ll remember his own actions, and that they therefore have some meaning. Sarah (Cristin Milioti), on the other hand, is haunted by the past. Every morning she wakes up and is confronted with her terrible action—she slept with her sister’s fiancée the night before her sister’s wedding—and while hanging out with Nyles offers a brief reprieve from that truth, she can’t outrun it for the rest of existence.
This leads to the film’s conclusion where Nyles and Sarah start running towards the end of their respective arcs. For Sarah, she needs to move on. She can’t live with her terrible actions, and while having fun with Nyles is great, she has her own internal struggle that she has to deal with. Therefore, she starts working on the tangible solution of studying the quantum physics required to escape the time loop. Nyles, on the other hand, is about realizing there’s more to life than his own malaise and ennui. He has to admit that he loves Sarah, and that existence without her would be meaningless.
And that brings us to the point of the film, which is that existence only has meaning with other people. How we treat other people is far more important than how we treat ourselves. Left to our own devices and devoid of any consequences, we will eventually collapse into nihilism because our actions only affect ourselves. Nyles and Sarah aren’t only caught in a time loop; they’re caught in a loop of self-destruction. For Nyles, he’s aimless and has accepted there’s no way out so he may as well just have a relaxing time; for Sarah, she’s caught in a loop of her own guilt and selfishness, aware of how her actions harm others but unable to break free. It’s not until Nyles and Sarah come together and realize that they bring meaning to each other’s lives that they’re thematically able to break free.
(Literally they’re able to break free because of quantum physics, but that’s not as interesting. If you’re looking for the how of escaping a fictional time loop, Milioti told us that she practiced and researched everything about the real science behind the time loop:
“There used to be a huge monologue in the film, and I’m talking a three- page speech of quantum physics speak, where she explained very succinctly how it all works. And I memorize it, and researched every single part of it obviously, and spent days and days and days and weeks researching it, I knew exactly what I was talking about. It’s all gone.
So that is to say that a great amount of thought was put into it. I know that they spoke to quantum physicist. They really did their research. They spoke to different scientists, and yeah. I mean, I have my own theory about how long it took her, but it’s kind of irrelevant. It’s sort of up to the viewer.”
The movie isn’t about quantum physics, so that’s not really important other than as a plot point.)
What makes Palm Springs a powerful movie is that it understands that when your life is at a standstill, you can’t run from yourself or run away with other people. During this long quarantine, that message is especially potent as we’re all stuck with ourselves and, wouldn’t you know it, all the days seem to run together. We need more than just diversions. We need people. Existence is meaningless without them.
Oh, and the dinosaurs? They’re a fun bit of a symbolism for a movie about a time loop because you take a creature that was around eons ago and put them in the modern day to show that time still has meaning, but more importantly, you can only see something bigger than yourself when you’re with someone you love.
As for the credits scene with Roy, it’s technically a plot hole, but it doesn’t matter. If the goat disappeared, then Nyles and Sarah should also “disappear” from that day, but the scene exists to let us know that Sarah and Nyles didn’t leave Roy wandering around a time loop for the rest of forever.