Have you seen The Prestige? Some spoilers for that film follow, so, stop reading, go watch it because it is amazing, then come back here later.
Seriously, I am about to spoil at least one and maybe two plotlines from that movie.
Basic premise: a couple of magicians one-upping each other. But, between illusions and near-magical science via Nikola Tesla, things get complicated. Anyway, one of the magicians, Robert Angier, played by Hugh Jackman, gets Tesla to make him a teleporter… or so it seems. The thing is, the teleportation device is not really teleporting anything. Like Badger pointed out in a seemingly out-of-place conversation in this week’s 5.5 season premiere of Breaking Bad, arguably the teleporter in Star Trek is not actually transporting you; instead, it’s tearing you apart here and recreating you someplace else… i.e. it’s making a copy of you. This argument is supporting by, say, the creation of Thomas Riker.
But, this isn’t about Star Trek. It’s not even supposed to be about The Prestige, but I will let this go where it will go.
Anyway, Angier never actually transports. Instead, he is constantly copying himself. But, he doesn’t need innumerable copies of himself running around… though that could be useful, I suppose, if he wanted to franchise out the act to multiple cities at once. Or he could at least have done what Borden is doing for his magic (that one isn’t much of a spoiler, though it does imply one if you think about it, but you’re not supposed to be reading this until you’ve watched The Prestige anyway). So, what does Angier do? He sets up his originals to fall into water to drown, while the copy finishes the act. Of course, the copy has the memories of the original, so I’m sure he’s ok with it all. But, consider the mindset of that original each time he finds himself in the water. He’s committing suicide every time.
What does this have to do with Groundhog Day? Well, over at tv tropes, I saw an interesting theory about Groundhog Day. See, if every decision we make produces an alternate universe…
(and that phrase alone may have jumped past the sci-fi experience of a few of you, so how about an explanation? Simply put, every choice serves as a point of divergence for two realities, one in which you, for example, turn right, one in which you turn left. Like the Doctor Who episode “Turn Left” or the TV series Awake or the movie Sliding Doors. Everything we do divides the universe, then divides it again, and again, and again, ad infinitum.)
So, the theory over there on tv tropes deals with the larger reality of Phil’s world. As the anonymous author suggests, “In the time loop, when a day ends, the day does not disappear into nothingness.” That is, Phil is still inside the time loop. The film just happens to end by following one version of Phil out of it. But, there are other versions of Phil’s world post Groundhog Day. In at least one, he probably married Nancy, even though he barely knew her. That probably didn’t go very well, if it did get that far. I’m sure his lies caught up to him. In another, Phil had to deal with the legal fallout of his night out with Ralph and Gus. How would that kind of gross property destruction sit with, say, Phil’s employers? Would he lose his job back in Pittsburgh? Does it matter, if maybe there actually was a major network interested in him? For the record, I think Phil was lying about that. In several universes, Phil and Rita probably tried dating despite their first night together ending in her slapping him. They might have even figured out how to be relatively happy together. And, in a handful of universes, Phil Connors is dead (and probably unwept, unhonored, and unsung).
There is a single scene in the film that supports this idea. By my count it’s day 27 onscreen. Phil has just died by performing a nice swan dive off what seems like it might be the tallest building in fictional Punxsutawney. And, tomorrow he will proclaim himself a god. But, in between, we see something that is different from the rest of the film. As Phil says later, “Anything different is good.” Or, perhaps here, anything different is telling us something vital to understanding the true inner workings of the Groundhog Day process. See, every scene of the film includes Phil. To do otherwise wouldn’t make much sense. But, this one scene, while it may include him, is not experience by him. Well, unless we’ve got an “Autopsy Room Four” or “Abra Cadaver” thing going on.
(The former is a Stephen King short story. The latter is an episode of Tales from the Crypt.)
The scene, if you don’t remember it, or get either of those two references, has Phil dead on the morgue table. There isn’t much dialogue, though Larry gets to be pretty funny. “He was a really great guy. I really really liked him a lot.” That extra “really” combined with “a lot” makes that line into something so obviously disingenuous that you can’t help but be amused. But, then maybe you get to wondering, like I do. Is Phil still experiencing this scene? Does he experience every repetition right up until 6 a.m.? If so, how does that experience go when he’s dead? Is it like he’s suffering from locked-in syndrome? Is he stuck there, under that sheet, with nothing but his thoughts until it’s time for Sonny & Cher? When he exploded, did he experience being in pieces? If he does experience death, would he be more likely to only commit suicide at night just so the wait time is shorter?
On a slightly more positive note—unless you have seen the film or read the novel Johnny Got His Gun—the Phil Connors we know learns what he needs to learn to get by. A lot of people think he learns French (though I’ve argued against that) and learns how to play the piano (though I’ve also argued against that), and he definitely seems to learn to ice sculpt (though I’ve argued a limitation to that as well). So, he’d probably take some time to learn morse code and he’d figure out a way to communicate with the mortician and get to know him like he’s gotten to know everyone else in town. Maybe.
But, anyway, the whole story is essentially an existential crisis already. So, a little time being dead would seem apropos. That kind of thing would give Phil an even greater grasp on what it means to be alive, to get to feel and breathe and be. Given this film’s popularity with Buddhists and the like, isn’t it appropriate that Phil not only repeats but reincarnates?
Today’s reason to repeat a day forever: to live deliberately and die well, to front not only the essential facts of life but of death, and see if I could not learn what they both have to teach, and not, when I came to… conclude, discover that I had neither lived nor died nor ever really existed outside, say, your imagination, you crazy people.