Needle in a Timestack (2021) poster

Needle in a Timestack (2021)


Canada/USA. 2021.


Director/Screenplay – John Ridley, Based on the Short Story Needle in a Timestack by Robert Silverberg, Producers – Zanne Devine, Aaron L. Gilbert, Matt Kennedy & David Thwaites, Photography – Ramsey Nickell, Music – Mark Isham, Visual Effects – FuseFX (Supervisor – Marshall Krasser), Special Effects Supervisor – Tim Storvick, Production Design – Michael Diner. Production Company – Bron Studios/Pacific Northwest Pictures/Ember20/Creative Wealth Media.


Leslie Odom, Jr. (Nick Mikkelsen), Frieda Pinto (Alex Leslie), Cynthia Erivo (Janine Mikkelsen), Orlando Bloom (Tommy Hambleton), Jadyn Wong (Zoe Mikkelsen)


Architect Nick Mikkelsen very much loves his wife Janine. However, she is still desired by her ex, billionaire Tommy Hambleton. New time travel technologies have opened up that allow people to visit the past and are available for the very rich. Although there are strict laws about changing things, changes are regularly being made to the timeline. Using the time travel technology, Tommy is able to visit the past. Nick wakes up from one of these shifts to find he is now married to Alex Leslie and that Janine has never left Tommy.

Needle in a Timestack was a directorial outing from African-American director John Ridley who has been working as a screenwriter and producer since the 1990s. In this time, Ridley has delivered scripts for films such as U Turn (1997), Three Kings (1999), Red Tails (2012), 12 Years a Slave (2012) and Ben Hur (2019), and before that had written several novels and plays. He had previously directed the crime film Cold Around the Heart (1997) and the Jimi Hendrix biopic Jimi: All is By My Side (2013). The film adapts a story by celebrated science-fiction author Robert Silverberg whose work had previously been adapted to the screen with Amanda and the Alien (1995) and Bicentennial Man (1999).

Time Travel films have gained an increasing sophistication throughout the last decade with films such as The Infinite Man (2014), Predestination (2014), Black Hollow Cage (2017), In the Shadow of the Moon (2019) and Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes (2020). If anything, Needle in a Timestack resembles a film like The Butterfly Effect (2004) in which Ashton Kutcher gains the ability to go back in time to certain points in his life and tries to repair his relationship to Amy Smart, creating an Alternate Timeline every time he does so.

Needle in a Timestack comes with a solid grasp of time travel and alternate timeline themes – I liked little touches like the way after the first shift we see Leslie Odom, Jr. go from having a dog to being a cat lover. The film is divided into three sections – entitled ‘Nick & Janine’, ‘Nick & Alex’ and just ‘Nick’ – each corresponding to Leslie Odom, Jr. being with one of the women and then on his own following a phase shift. In these, we see him undergoing the abrupt shift where he is now married to Frieda Pinto and how his memories adjust and take time to slot into being part of the new world. In another subplot, we see that Leslie’s sister Jaclyn Wong has gone back and changed things so that her girlfriend doesn’t die in a rock-climbing accident and is begging Leslie not to tell the girlfriend.

Leslie Odom, Jr. and Cynthia Erivo in Needle in a Timestack (2021)
Leslie Odom, Jr. and wife Cynthia Erivo in a happy moment before the changes to the timeline

The film seems to have been conceived around the idea of taking the endings of films like Back to the Future (1985) and Timecop (1994) where the protagonists change their timeline and seem to slot back into lives they have never lived, and explores what such a disjunct would actually be like. All solid science-fiction writing.

There is a really good science-fiction film somewhere in the midst of Needle in a Timestack. However, it feels like the film is made in a way that seems to undermine this. Rather than focus on the temporal convolutions and the central drama of the film – the strong one of a man finding that the reality he knows is changing on him and he is losing the woman that means the most to him – John Ridley plays everything with a pained sincerity.

Every beat, every emotion the film wants to generate in us is drawn out – people express their feelings and mild anguishes at length – and this drags the story out far longer than it would have been in another director’s hands. What we have should be a time travel story about changes in the timeline not an agonisingly hand-wringing relationship drama.

Trailer here

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