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Groundhog Day and 12:01

Twin films

It's surprisingly common for two films to appear around the same time with similar basic ideas—the phenomenon is known as "twin films". (See a list of twin films on Wikipedia.) For example, Armageddon and Deep Impact, both 1998, about impending destruction by a meteor. There are sometimes allegations of plagiarism (as there were with 12:01 and Groundhog Day) but this overlooks a lot of structural reasons. Many films are inspired by recent events or controversies. These aren't necessarily obvious. Only a few years before Armageddon and Deep Impact, Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 had collided with Jupiter—a massive strike that excited astronomers and was in the news in 1994. The process of film development is notoriously long and slow, and many, many scripts are around that never get produced: thus it is likely that there are plenty of scripts with similar ideas floating round all the time. Also, less tangibly, some ideas are in the air in the film world at particular times.

In 1993, two films—both very good—were made with much the same premise: one character finds the day repeating endlessly. At the end of each day he finds himself waking up back at the start of it. No one else is aware of this, and their behaviour, except when affected by the protagonist, is always the same. He can do different things each day, but nothing he does will have any effect in the next loop. Are these two "twin films"?

One of these films is the very well-known Groundhog Day, now considered a classic. The other is the less well-known 12:01. 12:01 was based on a short story by Richard Lupoff (1973), and had earlier been adapted as a 30 minute short (1990). Richard Lupoff and Jonathan Heap (the director of the 1990 version) believed that Groundhog Day was plagiarized from 12:01. (See "Recollections by Richard Lupoff") However, Danny Rubin, who wrote the initial script of Groundhog Day, states that he got the idea in 1990 from thinking about what vampires would do with their time.

I'm not going to comment on that dispute, as I have no special information. However, it's interesting to compare the two films. The remarkable thing is that, despite the similarity of the basic premise, the films otherwise have almost nothing in common.

12:01

12:01 is a science fiction film. The repeating day is caused by a "time bounce", the effect of an unauthorized experiment. Thus, the universe is stuck in a loop. No one except Barry, the protagonist, notices, because their memory is reset along with everything else. The protagonist is, uniquely, aware, and remembers previous loops, because of (reverse polarity here). Actually, we don't know that he is the only one, but he works in personnel at the place where the experiment takes place so he's the only one in a position to do anything. In successive days, he manages to find out more, recruit one of the leading physicists (Lisa), and stop the time bounce. Also, he gets the girl (Lisa), so there's a happy ending. The story is essentially mystery/action about solving the problem. There are something like a dozen loops, I haven't counted them.

Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day is a fantasy. Phil, a weatherman, is stuck in a small town where he went to broadcast a groundhog day festival. There is no explanation for the repeating day, or why one character (Phil) is aware of it. We don't see every loop, and it is implied that there are a huge number of them: for example at one point Phil breaks off to learn French to a high standard. The story is philosophical, and about Phil's gradual development—which isn't straightforward. The loops finally end when Phil reaches a certain stage; though by that point he no longer worries about his situation.

After initial confusion, Phil uses his situation to indulge in pleasures without consequences - food, sex, money. This gradually palls and he turns to trying to seduce Rita, his producer, by learning what impresses her, stage by stage, adding a few seconds to the last day's progress each time. But at the end of it all, she realizes there is an insincerity to what he is doing, and rejects him. Phil goes into a decline, becomes frighteningly angry, and kills himself, but wakes up again as usual. In a state of subdued hopelessness, one day he makes Rita believe in his situation by showing incredible levels of pre-knowledge. She comforts him and suggests that perhaps there is a positive side. The next day, he starts to live more positively. He learns to play the piano. I won't go into all the details here but eventually he spends much of each day helping people out, preventing deaths and accidents, etc. He now accepts his role with something like joy.

Other time loops

Incidentally, the idea of reliving your life had been around for a while. Ken Grimwood's Replay (1986) involves a man who dies in the 1980s (in his 40s) and wakes up in 1963, when he was 18. He is in a loop, though a much longer one. It's well worth reading and I won't give any spoilers here. Another notable exmple is the Star Trek TNG episode "Cause and Effect" (see page on this site), first broadcast in 1992. In this, the Enterprise is caught in a time bounce which is apparently spatially localized. This version is slightly different in that no one remembers previous loops consciously, but for some unstated reason they have growing subconscious memories—it seems there is a very slight residue between loops.

The meaning of Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day can be interpreted in many ways. One quite common interpretation is in religious terms, either Buddhist or Christian. Phil's experiences can be understood as Purgatory: he has to purify himself and escape from his self-centredness and cynicism. Phil's transformation is deep. At the start he avoids a homeless man on the street, then he helps him. In the evening, though, he finds that the old man dies. He tries to save him, and by this time he has moved from shrinking away, to love. But the old man always dies. Phil accepts his limitations. "Sometimes people just die," a nurse tells him.

Rita is in many ways a Beatrice figure. Dante was inspired by falling in love with Beatrice (from a distance). She became, at least by his account, a symbol of the divine for him, and in the Divine Comedy she has helped to bring him to Paradise, and becomes his guide. Similarly, Phil remarks that something changed in him when he first saw her (compare Dante, on seeing Beatrice: "Here begins the new life"). Rita is a rather passive character, but this fits the Beatrice figure: her role is for Phil to journey toward her. His attempt to win her by effort is doomed to failure (Pelagianism?).

At a different level, Phil's evolution shows some Freudian aspects, starting with oral pleasures (eating without restraint—"I don't even need to floss"), moving on to sex, and eventually finding the death-wish.

Comparison

As you will have gathered by now, the feel and meaning of the two films is totally different, despite sharing the basic plot device. The differences can be set out:

12:01 Groundhog Day
Genre Science fiction Fantasy
Why the loop Loop is the universe repeating, caused by unwise experiment Loop is unexplained
Nature of story Story is adventure: finding and solving the cause (against opposition) Story is about development of personality
Love interest: story Hero has chance to show heroine his mettle Hero fails in attempt to impress heroine, and wins her only when he gives up on this
Love interest: significance Heroine as partner in adventure Heroine as Beatrice figure
Significance/symbolism Dangers of irresponsible science? Religious/spiritual/psychological

Conclusion

So—in conclusion, these are radically different films. The comment I have sometimes seen that they are similar shows a failure to look beyond the basics of premise. (I am not commenting on the argument about whether that premise was taken properly or not.) Do they constitute a case of twin films? Formally, but not in a useful sense. (Interestingly, the Wikipedia list of twin films didn't contain them when I consulted it in March 2022.) It is understandable that the makers of 12:01 feel their idea was stolen, but I think they are mistaken. Also, although 12:01 is a good film, it isn't a great film, as Groundhog Day is.



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