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The Most Important Existential Questions Raised by GROUNDHOG DAY

Groundhog Day might be about a single man forced to relive the same day over and over, but one sequence raises philosophical questions that go well beyond a single individual. Even though Phil Connors’ life resets every February 2 at 6:00 a.m., the movie also shows that for each Groundhog Day he experiences, the world still continues on for everyone else. And that calls into question much deeper issues than most movies—let alone comedies—ever ask about identity, parallel universes, infinite timelines, the afterlife, and the very nature of existence.

No matter what Bill Murray‘s Phil Connors does, he wakes up every morning on Groundhog Day—that much is made clear by the movie’s halfway point. But then we come to an interesting addendum to this concept: Phil will continue to wake up every day on Groundhog Day even if he kills himself, which he tries to do numerous times and ways in one of the movies funniest montages. More fascinating than even that, his failed attempts also reveal a fact that changes everything about this universe he’s in: The world doesn’t stop just because he dies.

The first time we see Phil kill himself is when he steals the groundhog Punxsutawney Phil and drives a pickup truck off a cliff, resulting in the vehicle’s explosion. If whatever the universe is up to here was only about Phil, the next thing we would have seen would be Phil opening his eyes in bed at 6:00 a.m., starting off another day. But before we return to that point, we see Rita and Larry reacting to Phil’s death, because it turns out even if Phil dies, this strange ever-repeating world around him doesn’t.

The same issue presents itself again when on another day, when Rita and Larry identify Phil’s unquestionably dead body at the local morgue following a later suicide.

At first glance, these post-Phil scenes are a great gag about how we’re inclined to treat even the biggest jerks as saints after they die. But considering the powerful cosmic forces at play in this movie, they also change the conversation on what is really happening here.

Yes, the world is frozen for Phil, but as these scenes prove, it’s only frozen for Phil. Existence does not depend on him moving forward, so every February 2 he experiences must beget its own February 3. And that is totally insane, and raises some pretty heavy questions.

1. In the cases where Phil hasn’t died, does another version of him still exist along with everyone else on February 3?

What is happening on those next days while our Phil is still trapped? Has he totally vanished like he was raptured? Or is a version of him still there? If he’s gone, that would mean Phil is the most important person in the universe, because this insane event happening to him is happening in every timeline for everyone. But if some version of Phil does exist, his story is only unique to himself, and more importantly only to this specific version of Phil. But either way, the movie challenges what it truly means to be anyone.

2. Are we one person simultaneously existing in infinite forms all at once? Or are we totally insignificant because our infinite existences makes each one meaningless? Do any of our lives matter?

Imagine meeting a second version of yourself who lives in another parallel plane of existence, and it was only created because one day you decided to eat Mexican food instead of Italian. Would you view that person as being any different from yourself? Would you be two distinct people, or the same person existing simultaneously? Would simply having to face that fact make you feel more important or less? Because if we exist in infinite forms does any one of “us” matter? Groundhog Day was asking this question long before Rick and Morty.

3. Why are some truths absolute, regardless of what we do? Are there some things we can’t control no matter what we do?

The homeless old man Pop dies on every single Groundhog Day Phil experiences, no matter what he does to save him. Pop never makes it to February 3, and never will. As the ER nurse says, “He was just old. It was just his time.” But why is this one thing always true? Does that mean there is some greater, more powerful force at play? Do we all have a definitive end date we can never overcome? Does a supernatural force decides when that is?

This brings into question the existence of an afterlife. If one does exist, do all of our “selves” go there? If we exist in infinite forms do we all meet each other in this afterlife, or rather does this point to each version of us just being a piece of one identity? It’s hard to imagine a Heaven-like realm made up of infinite versions of ourselves. Maybe we really are just ourselves, the one version, and our reward someday is to know what every version of our life looked like, from our best selves to our worst.

Of course none of this addresses how this version of Phil Connors managed to break out of the system and stay behind in one timeline. Was this a cosmic punishment, a mistake, or an opportunity to find the best timeline of his life and the best version of himself? And if so, who gave it to him? Maybe he did somehow, meaning he was right when he said he is “a god.” Either way, some greater force was at work with Phil, just like it was with Pop.

Groundhog Day is a great comedy that just so happens to raises deep, meaningful questions about the nature of existence, but it’s the possible answers the movie gives to them that are important. In a universe of infinite timelines, somewhere we are living our best lives, and that’s because that’s where we are the best versions of ourselves. If we know that, just like Phil Connors discovered, we can make it this timeline.

What do you think? What does Phil’s death sequence say about the universe? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Images: Columbia Pictures

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