Groundhog Day

(Dir. Harold Ramis, USA, 1993)

[part of a BFI essays collection]

For science fiction fans, Groundhog Day can be a cause of argument. Is it - or is it not - science fiction? For those adhering to Peter Nicholls' useful science fiction qualification of the "explicable novum" - which demands an explanation in terms of natural law - Groundhog Day fails to deliver. Perhaps predictably then, it is not included in Nicholls' (and John Clute's) Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. However, the film did win the 1994 Science Fiction Achievement Award ("Hugo") for Best Dramatic Presentation. The Aurum Encylopedia of Film: Science Fiction acknowledges the film as "an interesting test case for the definitions of science fiction", a reflection, possibly, of John Baxter's earlier assertion that science fiction presents battles between logic and illogic, order and chaos. It is Groundhog Day's attempts to use logic to make order out of chaos which seem to support most arguments for its inclusion in the science fiction canon.

Upgrading his misanthropic title role in Scrooged (1988), Bill Murray here plays an equally cynical TV weatherman, Phil Connors, who is sent to Punxsutawney, Pensylvannia to report on the annual Groundhog Festival. Joining him on the loathed trip are guileless producer, Rita (Andie MacDowell) and hapless cameraman, Larry (Chris Elliot). Rubin and Ramis' slick, BAFTA-winning script quickly gets Connors to the point where he realises that he is living the same day - February 2nd - over and over again. After seeing a neurologist - a Ramis-trademark cameo role - Connors' actions move from hedonism to suicidal depression, before he finally attempts to live the perfect day with Rita. In the spirit of It's a Wonderful Life (1946), Groundhog Day is the perfect 'what if…?' comedy: simple question, complex outcome.

Ironically, Groundhog Day's cause-and-effect narrative also highlight's the film's main logical flaw. Connors is able to engineer the perfect day because he is able to predict what, when and where things are going to happen. His final perfect day consists largely of good deeds performed as a result of his prior knowledge of people's needs. However, in saving the boy falling from the tree, or the mayor from choking on his steak, Connors has altered time from that moment onwards. The further he moves from that moment, the less likely it is that his predictions will continue to come true. The logic of cause-and-effect would therefore make it vitually impossible for Connors to engineer the perfect day. Ironically, it is Phil the groundhog, rather than Phil the weatherman, who predicts the blizzard that traps Connors in Punxsutawney. In fact, in the film's only real show of pathos, Connors is unable to save a homeless old man, whose death suggests that action has no real consequence and that Connors will never be able to alter the outcome of other people's days.

But Groundhog Day is a morality tale and, as such, is above this kind of pedantry. As for that argument about whether or not the film is science fiction: given that there are about as many definitions of science fiction as there are critics of the genre, the question will perhaps never be settled. Perhaps it is enough that Phil Connors engineers an almost perfect day, just as Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis engineer an almost perfect romantic comedy.

USA; Columbia; 101 minutes; UK cert. PG; colour
Producers: Trevor Albert, Harold Ramis; Writers: Danny Rubin, Harold Ramis; Cinematographer: John Bailey; Editors: Pembroke J. Herring; Music: George Fenton.
Cast. Phil Connors: Bill Murray; Rita: Andie MacDowell; Larry: Chriss Elliot; Ned Ryerson: Stephen Toblowsky; Buster: Brian Doyle-Murray; Nancy: Marita Geraghty; Neurologist: Harold Ramis.

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