This article was originally published for the 25th anniversary of Groundhog Day, and has been republished in honor of the 30th.
It’s easy to think of science fiction and fantasy films in terms of their trappings, whether that be spaceships and lasers or swords and sorcery. But at their best, works in that genre aren’t about light speed or magic powers; they’re about thought experiments made whole, meant to probe the real world through a fictional one and to examine the human condition by stripping away the bounds of the impossible and seeing how much humanity is left.
That’s a lofty way to introduce an uproariously funny, Bill Murray-fronted comedy. But seen from that vantage point, Groundhog Day may be the sci-fi/fantasy film of the decade (with all due respect to The Matrix), despite its small-town setting and distinct lack of spells or space flights, because it uses its fantastical conceit to reveal what could, and what does, make us good.
The film’s premise is deceptively simple. With no warning or explanation, a boorish and egotistical weatherman, Phil Connors, is forced to relive the same day over and over again. But from that simplicity comes one of cinema’s most incisive looks at why we should choose to do good things and why we should seek to be better people, even when there’s no promise of reward or change. Twenty-five years later, Groundhog Day is still as salient and relevant as it was when it first hit the big screen in 1993.
The hidden strength of the film is that it takes its loopy premise seriously. Make no mistake, Bill Murray is arguably at his comedic peak here, blending the obsequious jerk persona from his turn in Scrooged with the same sly, acerbic wit that had become his calling card, even as his character softens over the course of this film. Groundhog Day also wrings the comedy from a city slicker like Phil Connors having to deal with the vicissitudes of small-town life and even uses the movie’s repetitious setup to indulge in a little slapstick and employ the kind of gags that rely on theme and variation and experts in the editing bay.
But the script, penned by writer-director Harold Ramis and co-writer Danny Rubin, has the good sense not to turn Groundhog day into an airy romp. The film never loses its sense of fun or its sideways glance at the bizarre situation it presents, but it still commits to considering how someone, even someone as self-important as Phil Connors, would react to being stuck in this Sisyphean nightmare.
The result is that Phil goes through several different stages in response to the time loop, working his way through the sort of phases it feels like anyone might experience if they found themselves stuck in such an insane situation. For Phil, it starts with disbelief, questioning, and testing. He thinks he might be going mad, hallucinating, or dreaming until he breaks enough pencils and predicts enough future events to convince himself that no, this is really happening.