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Why we keep coming back to Groundhog Day

  • 22 February 2024
  In 1996, New York Times magazine asked legendary film theorist Stanley Cavell to pen fifty words about a film made since 1971 that would still be discussed in a century. He wrote about Groundhog Day (1993) and other critics thought he’d lost his edge: a romantic comedy about a guy stuck in a time loop? But, nearly thirty years on, Cavell has proven prescient: Groundhog Day is one of the most analysed works in movie history, a favourite of philosophers as well as theologians from many religions. It’s a story to which, in so many ways, we keep returning; after successful international stints, Groundhog Day The Musical is currently making its Australian debut in Melbourne. ‘Groundhog Day’ has entered the lexicon to mean a repetitive and frustrating situation from which there appears to be no escape. For those who haven’t seen the film or musical, it’s the story of an egocentric TV weatherman, Phil Connors, who visits the small US town of Punxsutawney to report on the annual appearance of the groundhog, an event that signals the end of winter. Phil sees himself as above the story and the hokey townsfolk; he’s desperate to get back to the city. But, forced to stay overnight, he inexplicably gets stuck in a time loop in which the events of the day repeat over and over. The only thing that can change are Phil’s responses to his circumstances — and change they do.

At first, he engages in endless hedonism, but eventually finds that soulless and unsatisfying. He then tries to escape what he sees as a living hell by numerous suicide attempts, from which he always awakens alive. He later begins to convince his producer, Rita, with whom he’s in love, that he’s trapped in a time loop. She reflects that if that’s his situation it doesn’t have to be hellish: ‘Sometimes I wish I had a thousand lifetimes. I don't know, Phil. Maybe it's not a curse. Just depends on how you look at it.’

Just like how we look at Groundhog Day determines what we get out of it. For many, it’s a fun story about the power of romantic love. But for others, it goes much deeper.

Philosophers have studied the parallels between Groundhog Day and Friedrich Nietzsche’s notion of ‘eternal recurrence’ — that we could be destined to re-live our exact lives infinitely. As philosopher Matt Bennett noted, Nietzsche realised this was