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Sundance 2020, Part 2: Sci-fi absurdity takes center stage with ‘Palm Springs,’ ‘Save Yourselves!’

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This is the second piece in the Daily’s 2020 Sundance Film Festival series by Arts & Life writers Julie Fukunaga and Olivia Popp.

As a fan of science fiction/speculative works and comedy, I jumped at the chance to see two Sundance films that appeared to encompass both in just around 90 minutes (joining the club of films that successfully capture a complete story in a snappy amount of time). What I didn’t expect was to see two films with very different mechanics attempt to tackle the meaning of life in that hour-and-a-half with very similar setups: A man and a woman are stuck together in an absurd situation and are thus required to confront all the emotions they’ve been avoiding in order to survive.

When it comes down to it, both films feel like they’re trying to say something about living life to the fullest — even if you’re left struggling to figure out what it is — and that requires the characters being thrust into bizarre speculative situations to realize it. “Palm Springs” and “Save Yourselves!” both rush through their concluding notes, although the former allows its characters to explore their own romantic and emotional hesitations much more thoroughly prior to their finales, creating a much more fulfilling payoff.

Palm Springs

I had the opportunity to see “Palm Springs” (directed by Max Barbakow) in Eccles Theatre, Sundance’s largest screening venue, where ushers attempted to fill the entire auditorium (sold out as advertised!). Although I had gotten tickets for the film before it blew up Sundance radars, I learned that “Palm Springs” quickly jumped to the top of everyone’s Sundance watchlist when it made headlines for setting a new record for Sundance sales. NEON and Hulu acquired the film for $17.5 million — or rather, $17.5 million and 69 cents, beating the previous record by that very sly 69 cents. Seems like a petty (or ultimately, extremely clever) move to garner attention for the film, which, judging by the sold-out Sundance audiences, appeared to work.

“Palm Springs” could be considered a digestible crash-course on philosophical worldviews: Maid-of-honor Sarah (Cristin Milioti, “Black Mirror” episode “USS Callister”) meets the confident, brash Nyles (Andy Samberg, “Brooklyn 99”) at the former’s sister’s (Camila Mendes, “Riverdale”) luxurious eponymously located wedding, they instantly hit it off — but then, plot twist! While spending some quality time together in the desert that evening, Sarah sees Nyles get chased and shot in the butt with an arrow by a camo-donning man (J.K. Simmons) and falls into a mysterious cave emitting strange light — and then she ends up waking up back on the morning of the wedding, stuck in a time loop of that very day. Samberg plays, well, Samberg, or at least a character in classic Andy Samberg style, cheeky and impudent with a heart of gold — that is, the “lovable white man” of contemporary rom-coms. But Milioti is the standout of the two leads, delivering a narrative arc that ranges from party-loving cynic caught up in the romantic clichés of Nyles’ wiles to unstoppably determined codger who teaches herself quantum physics in an attempt to escape the time loop. 

“Palm Springs” embraces absurdity with a light touch — just don’t think about the mechanics too much. In the vein of “Groundhog Day” meets wedding romcom, the film derives its laughs from good-natured cynicism. Though much less dark than “Russian Doll,” its style of carefree character death — and thus the trigger for restarting the day again — is similar, reveling in the hilarity of what you can do if you can never die. The film succeeds by both subverting and engaging with the romcom format: Nyles and Sarah fall in and out of love as they are forced to live out the same day over and over with each other — a day that begins to uproot and unravel deep feelings for the both of them. In the style of a stand-up comedy set, “Palm Springs” retains a manic energy that can carry most audiences through its quick hour-and-a-half — the film warrants multiple viewings to actually pick up on all of the blink-of-an-eye moments. However, the film often thinks it’s funnier than it actually is: it shines more in its repetitive, action-based montages than it does in its wordplay and dialogue jokes. 

Whereas we learn that Nyles is the nihilist (fingers crossed for the homophonic quality as intentional) — having given up all hope of returning to temporal reality and instead permitting himself to indulge in whatever he pleases — and Sarah is the existentialist — insisting that there must be a way to get out of the time loop, her own existential angst driving her to the point of despair. As she becomes unhinged in her pursuit to return to her normal life — however imperfect — “Palm Springs” finally becomes the landscape in which characters are free to explore what they can never do in reality, utilizing the speculative world to its fullest.

Sunita Mani and John Paul Reynolds star in “Save Yourselves!” (Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Save Yourselves!

Films with an exclamation mark in their title (think “Airplane!” and “Mamma Mia!”) usually tell me that they’re trying to say, “Please don’t take me too seriously.” The same thing can be said about “Save Yourselves!” — a charming feature debut by writer-directors Alex Huston Fischer and Eleanor Wilson that might not be as strong as “Palm Springs,” but indulges in the more playful side of speculative fiction comedy. 

Su (Sunita Mani, “GLOW”) and Jack (John Paul Reynolds, “Stranger Things”) are that stereotypical endearingly in-love millennial couple you see in film and television — obsessed with trends and fads, glued to their phones, pseudo-hipsters who bemoan their lack of minimalism. The very moment that they decide to go on a retreat to a remote cabin and go cold turkey from screen time, they miss the very important news that … aliens are invading Earth.

Of course, it takes a while for them to realize what’s going on. “Save Yourselves!” piles on the dramatic irony, the audience privy to bodies flying around outside the cabin while Su and Jack attempt to enjoy a lovely nature getaway, oblivious to everything. Once the couple finally realizes, the film introduces the extraterrestrials with such comedic grace that one might do a double take on the fuzzy pouf cushion-like aliens (they’re just so soft and fuzzy!) before they quickly leave a bloody trail of dead bodies in their wake. They’re forced to confront who they really are without their phones, which is the true joy of the film — how they hold up as a couple, from communication to basic survival instincts. Yet, much of the latter half of the film devolves into a meandering escape from the pouf aliens that sidelong tosses in a drug-induced hallucinations sequence and a baby that they must care for.

There are a surprising number of dead bodies for a film that’s a comedy — but it’s not quite a dark comedy. I could see “Save Yourselves!” as the pilot of a comedy series, with our leading couple thrust into a pouf-dominated new world that they must navigate together. Just like the exclamation point implies, it’s the film’s light-hearted, absurdist spirit that aims to explore the couple’s relationship as bumbling millennials rather than utilizing a certain grim morbidity. So even if they may end up as select survivors of the alien invasion, it very well might be just the luck of the draw.

Contact Olivia Popp at oliviapopp ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Olivia Popp previously served as Managing Editor of Arts & Life for two years and is a former Editor-at-Large for the Daily's Board of Directors. Find her on Twitter: @itsoliviapopp.