Repetition is hell, man. 

As Devin points out in his review of Edge of Tomorrow, Doug Liman’s latest film is the perfect depiction of playing video games – the adaptation, evolution and patience that comes with mastering a level or defeating a boss only by dying repeatedly. You get better at video games the more you get defeated. That’s why I don’t play video games – I don’t have the disposition for repetition.

While I’ve never been a big gamer, I am a big fan of time loop fiction – from the classic Groundhog Day to the “Mystery Spot” episode of Supernatural. That said, fewer things that will never happen to me in real life are the cause of as much dread as being stuck in a time loop. While watching a hero eventually learn to master his surroundings by repeating the same day over and over again is fun to watch in a film, I can’t think of anything more nerve-wracking and stressful than having to memorize every moment of your surroundings in order to repeat a pattern. Needless to say, I’m not very good at Simon Says.

While Groundhog Day and Edge of Tomorrow are impressive works of entertainment, nothing in the time loop sub-genre has left as big of an impression as Ken Grimwood’s 1986 novel Replay. While not the first work of fiction to explore the concept of a time loop (earlier, there was the 1973 short story "12:01 PM" by Richard A. Lupoff – who brought suit against Columbia Pictures for the similarity between his story and Groundhog Day), Replay is arguably the inspiration for many of the time loop stories that have come since – including, perhaps, Edge of Tomorrow. Replay was a massive seller in Japan – I can only assume (without any facts to back it up, of course) that Hiroshi Sakurazaka, the author of All You Need is Kill (on which Edge of Tomorrow is based), read the novel. 

Grimwood’s novel follows the life of Jeff Winston, a tired, prematurely old man whose life is in a rut. His wife just barely puts up with him and his career is going nowhere. With so few options remaining for where his life will go next, perhaps it’s for the best that Jeff drops dead of a heart attack at the age of 43. Except life isn’t done with Jeff – moments after his heart stops, he is reborn in 1963.

After dealing with the expected shock of his death and subsequent chronologically screwy resurrection, Jeff soon realizes his mind has been transported back into his teenage body. He’s still attending Emory University, he hasn’t yet met his wife and – best of all – he knows exactly what life has in store for him. Naturally, Jeff decides to have a little fun – taking a break from his regularly scheduled program to hit Las Vegas and make some money betting on those sporting events he still remembers. Over the subsequent years, Jeff amasses a small fortune, makes a name for himself in the world of business and even tries to stop the JFK assassination (it doesn’t work) but when Jeff decides he’d like to hook up with his old wife again he realizes that once he’s changed enough of his past it’s impossible for to recapture his old future. After tracking down the woman he once shared his life with, all Jeff manages to do is creep her out by showing an intimate knowledge of a woman he has never met in this reality. Jeff is sad but Jeff is also rich and so he moves on. He starts a new family, has a kid and lives a relatively happy life until one day – at the age of 43 – Jeff dies and is once again reborn in 1963.

Grimwood’s novel follows Jeff – a man not stuck reliving a single day but reliving an entire life. Jeff dies, is reborn 25 years later and lives his life to the best of his ability only to have to repeat the process over and over and over again. A child is wiped from existence. Untold riches are struck from the accounting books. Successes are just as nullified as mistakes. Jeff is forced into a clean slate roughly every 25 years – everything he has amassed and earned and lost, it’s all meaningless as reality is erased and the clock reset. How is this not considered a horror novel?

There are lifetimes Jeff spends in a state of drunken bliss – hiding from the sad state of affairs he has been forced into by disappearing into a sea of booze and women. He is drugged out and aimless – content to waste his life until the next time he dies. There are other lifetimes he decides to learn from his cycles – like any good time loop protagonist – making note of the people he can trust and the fortunes that can be made with the right bets or investments. Jeff lives in extreme luxury and he lives in extreme poverty – he lives and lives and lives – dying every 25 years.  In all the repeated realties, Jeff never tries to start a family again, though. The loss of one child – stricken from any of history’s record books – was more than enough for Jeff. Getting his tubes tied is one of the first things Jeff does at the start of every new cycle.

Eventually, Jeff discovers that he is not alone. As with most things these days, it all comes down to Star Wars – or the lack thereof. In one of his cycles, Jeff has committed to living like a hermit – isolated from civilization in the hopes he can find peace. On a rare trip into town, though, Jeff hears of a movie called Starsea – an intergalactic tale about super-intelligent dolphins. While both the name and the plot sound super ridiculous, in the world(s) of Replay, the movie has had a deep impact on the entire country. People can’t stop talking about this movie. The weird thing is, though, Jeff has never heard of this film – and he’s been around for a long time.

After doing a little research, Jeff learns that Starsea is a movie directed by a pre-Close Encounters Steven Spielberg with a pre-Star Wars George Lucas as a creative consultant and special effects supervisor. The writer is a woman named Pamela Phillips and, like Jeff, she has been stuck in a time loop for many, many years. Unlike Jeff, though, Pamela decided to do something productive with her time – she created the greatest work of art the world has ever seen – cherry picking the top talent of the ‘70s to bring her vision to life. Pamela chastises Jeff for wasting his life until they both repeat and she realizes that everything she worked on – all the good her movie accomplished – was all meaningless when the Etch-A-Sketch that is Jeff and Pamela’s life was given its quarterly shake. Sure, Pamela could spend the next replay recreating everything again – doing it repeat after repeat until she gets it just right. But what’s the point in doing something so grand (and so exhausting) that you’ve already done once – let alone doing it again and again every 25 years?

Replay covers a lot of familiar grounds when it comes to time loop fiction – you’ve got attempts to rewrite history for your own personal gain , attempts to right great wrongs (an attempt to warn the government about natural disasters goes very, very wrong) and attempts to find love while adrift in a sea of repetition.

Once Pamela and Jeff both realize the only impact they can ever make on the world is to each other, Replay, in its second half, becomes a great love story between two people who had previously believed themselves doomed to an eternity alone. There’s a wrinkle, though – Jeff and Pamela cycles aren’t synched. When the two die in 1988 they aren’t both reborn at the same point in history – let alone the fact that Pamela is considerably younger than Jeff. When Jeff dies and is reborn in 1963, Pamela is a young girl and years away from suddenly having the consciousness of her older self take possession of her body (it’s only slightly less creepy than it sounds). Jeff and Pamela’s romance must be put on hold until A) both are at a socially appropriate age to actually begin dating and B) both remember each other and their continuing relationship. What is it with great, tragic love stories and time travel – they go together like Tom Cruise and running!

Ken Grimwood, in his novel, perfectly captures the fantasies and fears that are a part of being stuck in a time loop. This is true of most attempts to explore this concept in fiction. Bill Murray had audiences laughing as he effortlessly played god – anticipating the actions of everybody around him – but there was a deep sadness in Groundhog Day – the loneliness of a man unable to create a lasting mark. Replay allows its protagonist more flexibility – twenty-five years instead of a single day. That, I fear, is even worse of a trauma. It’s repetition extended and drawn out. Imagine having to wait in a line for fifteen minutes every day – now imagine a lifetime spent waiting in life for a full afternoon every day – only to get to the front of life, have a heart attack, die and be respawned at the back of line.

Jeff, Grimwood’s chrono martyr, never achieves anything for all his toiling. He works and plans and pulls off the complex memorizations and rehearsals that are needed for leading a successful life as a time traveler, but in the end he’ll be forced to do it all over again. If my computer crashed while I was writing this article, I would never, ever attempt to rewrite it. Maybe I’m a quitter. Maybe I don’t have the conviction needed to be a real man. Whatever the case, I would be in absolute living hell if I found myself in a time loop – a living hell not even suicide would solve.

Replay has been in development for a film adaptation for several years now. At one point in time, Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt were attached to a version of the film shortly after  they filmed The Mexican but when the movie came out and fizzled at the box office, so did plans for an adaptation of Replay. Most recently, Robert Zemeckis was circling the film a few years back – after plans to have Ben Affleck star in an adaptation for Disney fell through. I have no doubt that Grimwood’s novel will eventually find its way to the big screen – just as I have no doubt that I will be in the theater opening night.  As somebody who takes his time loop fiction very seriously, I look forward to the day I can sit in a theater and have my stomach drop and my skin turn icy cold with dread as I watch what to me is the scariest type of horror story play out on screen. Repetition, man. There’s no greater hell.