How Palm Springs is like COVID-19 in the United States
⚠️ Spoilers Ahead Don’t read this if you want to watch the movie and be surprised. Anyway, this would be a better read if you’ve seen the movie.
I watched Palm Springs last night. It’s a sweet and funny movie. It takes the Groundhog Day conceit of repeating the same day over and over, and it expands on it. It has multiple characters who are real and human, and they all experience growth through the arc of the story.
I am struck by the ways in which we can see the ideas in the movie reflected in our current state in the COVID-19 pandemic. Our protagonists are stuck in a similarly difficult and unprecedented situation.
Nyles is stuck living the same day over an over. We see one of those days, and then he unintentionally brings Sarah into the time loop. She goes through some portion of the Stages of Grief. As the de facto last people on Earch, she and Nyles become close. Through this, we learn about both of them.
Nyles has given up. He is awash in apathy. He has embraced his eternal, but inconsequential life. Even when Sarah joins him, he is gliding through the infinite.
Nyles does provide some ethical guidance. The lack of forever consequences alters, but does not eliminate the ethical equation. It’s not true that “nothing matters.” Pain and pleasure, happiness and sadness - these feelings still happen in the world even if it resets the next day.
For a while, Sarah is able to glide along, but her exclamations that “nothing matters” obscure a problem. She wakes up each day just after the biggest mistake of her life. Reliving it every day without the possibility of fixing it is torture. She tries being a better person, but that doesn’t end the day. So, she sets out to figure out how to leave the time loop. Sarah studies quantum physics every day to devise a solution to her problem. Ultimately, she is able to accomplish this .
And here we are in quasi-isolation. Avoiding a global pandemic as best we can. Each day seems very much like the last day. Collectively, as a nation, we are Nyles. We have chosen apathy and trying to ignore the consequences1, rather than being like Sarah and using science to find a way out of this morass.
Beyond that, we see attempts to minimize illnesses, deaths, and other consequences that parallels Sarah’s initial instincts that nothing matters. These are born of attempts to justify the unjustifiable. In Sarah’s case, she had just maimed someone, though she has also betrayed someone close to her. In our case, we are stumbling incompetently through a disaster. Hundreds of thousands of people are going to die unnecessarily, and we’re going to do our best to ignore it. However, confronting this reality and our role in it is overwhelming, even as we fear for our own safety and economic security.
In the narrative of the movie, just like in real life, science is the way out of challenging situations. However, science isn’t solving the ethical problems. That requires thought, facing the truth, and doing the right thing even when it’s hard. These are all lessons we could take to heart.
If any of these ideas are interesting to you, I highly recommend The Good Place.
Yes, this situation is driven largely by our President and most of us didn’t choose him. However, we are a society, and we are collectively responsible even as we may individually try to be different. ↩︎