Needle In A Timestack Review: Ridley's Clever Sci-Fi Is Thoughtful Yet Hollow – Screen Rant

While Needle in a Timestack aims to be profound, it loses itself within the sci-fi premise rather than exploring the central romance in any detail.
Mixing time travel and romance is not a new concept, most memorably executed in The Time Traveler’s Wife, Outlander, and 13 Going on 30, just to name a few. Needle in a Timestack, written and directed by John Ridley (and based on the short story by Robert Silverberg) , examines the regret and fear of losing a romantic relationship. Just one change and everything could be different for a couple, including ending up with another partner. While Needle in a Timestack aims to be profound, it loses itself within the sci-fi premise rather than exploring the central romance in any detail. 
Nick (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Janine (Cynthia Erivo) are happy together, so in love they couldn’t imagine their lives without each other. Despite the story’s focus on how great their relationship is — longing looks, big smiles, teary confessions of love make up the majority of their onscreen affection — Nick is especially prickly when it comes to Janine’s ex-husband, Tommy (Orlando Bloom). Nick is convinced Tommy, who is an old friend, is trying to sabotage his marriage to Janine by jaunting (going back in time) to the past enough to change their existing marital status, and making it so Tommy and Janine never got divorced. While Nick frets, his sister (Jadyn Wong) worries that the only person who is more of a threat to ruining the marriage is him. 
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The concept of the film is an intriguing one. It explores regret and how the fear of losing something precious is often enough to meddle in affairs that could lead to a relationship’s demise. Nick is so terrified to lose Janine that he exacerbates the situation, even while his reading of Tommy’s regret over losing his ex is correct. At times, the film can even be thoughtful. Needle in a Timestack seems to have no issue with giving screen time to either Nick or Tommy, getting to the root of why they behave in certain ways, no matter how destructive or rash. What the film ultimately lacks is the perspectives of Janine and Alex (Freida Pinto), Nick’s ex-girlfriend. Even as time changes around them — punctuated by ripple wave effects that wash over people because of jaunting — the women in the film are not afforded much of a voice. 
Janine and Alex end up being the women Nick and Tommy have loved, lost, and who are worried about hurting, but all that does is put them in the middle of the men’s drama, pawns in the grand scheme of things rather than active players in the outcome. It’s disheartening, especially as the film is meant to be a romance, albeit one that isn’t very interested in delving into either of the romantic relationships. The audience is told over and over how important love is, how necessary; yet the film doesn’t spend enough time fleshing out the love stories at its core despite having the necessary parts to piece together. The film ultimately turns Nick and Tommy into opponents in love, the love triangle into a love square, and somehow removes the foundation of their romances altogether, relying on the audience to believe the depth of love and the consequences of living without it. 
The result is an overly long sci-fi drama that idealizes love rather than engaging with it in any meaningful way. It’s an issue that could have been resolved if its focus was less on the friendship and rivalry between Nick and Tommy, which is admittedly intriguing, and more on the relationships they both have with Janine and Alex, who are mostly in the peripheral of the story. Needle in a Timestack works when it delves into the nature of Nick and Tommy’s friendship and how they drifted apart after so many years. Although all of the film’s relationships are not fully realized, there’s something far more captivating about Nick and Tommy’s interactions in the short amount of time they’re given. 
The sci-fi concept of time travel is utilized in a unique way here as well, with Ridley adding certain layers to the effects of time. But however interesting the concept is, it’s overshadowed by the lackluster worldbuilding. Time traveling being something only the rich can do because of how expensive it is brings up class differences, but the film refuses to delve further into most of its themes, which renders aspects of the story hollow and devoid of urgency. Odom Jr.’s central performance is sincere and elevates the material, imbuing Nick with a deep sense of happiness, despair, and hurried desperation depending on what the scene calls for. Bloom is snarky, the perfect contrast to Odom Jr. And though there are moments when the screenplay and direction truly shine, especially when they escape the confines of the film’s conceit to dig deeper, Needle in a Timestack becomes too embroiled in its own profundity to fully soar.
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Needle in a Timestack will be released in limited theaters, on demand, and digital on October 15, 2021. It will be available on Blu-ray and DVD October 19. The film is 111 minutes long and is rated R for some language.
Mae Abdulbaki is a movie reviews editor with Screen Rant. She previously wrote about a variety of movies and TV shows for Inverse, CinemaBlend, Pajiba, and The Young Folks, where she wrote reviews, features, news pieces. Her other work can be found at The Mary Sue, Film School Rejects, UPROXX, Heroic Hollywood, Looper, The List, and Bam Smack Pow, among others. Mae has also appeared on television segments, podcasts, and panels to discuss all things entertainment.