Everything's Been Done...Again

WARNING! Please do not read this article until you’ve seen my short film Middle of Nowhere, or the above short, Reflexus. I comment heavily on the story structure of both, completely giving away any surprises these stories hold. Half the fun of movies like this are watching them unravel to their Twilight Zone-style conclusion.

About a week ago, I submitted my most recent short film, Middle of Nowhere, to Atomfilms. They pay filmmakers for the films they accept, based on how well the website does, as well as how may viewings your movie gets. I like this model, and wouldn’t mind recouping some of my $900 budget.

When I went to the site recently, I found a short film called Bullet Loop on their home page. After watching it, I was bummed to find it had the same story structure as my film, probably lessening the chances I’ll get accepted. I think Middle of Nowhere is far better than Bullet Loop, which doesn’t go any deeper than the looping story gimmick, and looks cheaply produced.

In the comments someone called it a ripoff of another movie on the site, Reflexus. This movie boasts excellent production values (it looks like it was shot on film), tries much harder at holding viewer interest, and is well thought out. While the submission date is listed as 2001, someone comments that they first saw it at the St. Louis film festival in 1997, predating my movie by ten whole years.

I had never heard of Reflexus when I wrote Middle of Nowhere two years ago. I had, however, seen several professionally produced products that definitely influenced the creation of my story. These fall into two categories: (1) the time loop, and (2) bumping into copies of yourself.

I first encountered the Time Loop story structure in a short film shown on HBO called 12:01pm (1990). It followed a man who was trapped in a time anomaly, and kept repeating the same hour of the day over and over. Then came Groundhog Day (1993), the very popular studio film which had weatherman Bill Murray doomed to repeat the same day over and over. Two other examples I can cite are the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Cause and Effect” (1992), and the X-Files episode “Monday” (1999). All of these followed a “rubber band” structure: the plot plays out until a certain event transpires, then time snaps back to the point of origin.

Bumping into Copies of Yourself also occurred in the Star Trek: TNG episode “Time Squared” (1989), as well as Back to the Future Part II (also in 1989). I also found this type of story to go as far back as 1941 when Robert A. Heinlein published his short story “By His Bootstraps.” These stories all find the main character interacting with one or more versions of themselves due to time travel.

I had admired all of these (although I had never read the Heinlein short) when I wrote my script. While I liked most of them (I wasn't a big fan of the Back to the Future sequel), I didn’t want my film to just be a copy of what had gone before. I wanted my plot to be more circular, with characters to make decisions that would perpetuate the loop, instead of fate jerking them back to the beginning. I think I succeeded, but like all good ideas, I was not the first one to use it.

Reflexus was written, directed, and edited by Mark Yoshikawa, who has since gone on to become a feature film editor. His last movie was The New World, where he worked for acclaimed director Terence Malick (Badlands, Days of Heaven). Next up is The American Pastime, shot here in Utah and due out this year. I can only hope that ten years after my film, I will be in a place as desirable as Yoshikawa’s.