Mike Phelan O’Toole
Philosophy In Film

Dr. Tish Allen


Groundhog Day and the Nature of Free Will

In the film “Groundhog Day” Pittsburgh TV reporter Phil is assigned
to cover the “Groundhog Day” event in Punxsutawny. Upon making the
drive, with his veteran cameraman, Larry, and new producer Rita, Phil
wakes up the next day to report on the groundhog. In between being
accosted by an annoying life insurance salesmen who claims to have
gone to high school with Phil, and his advances being rejected by Rita
due to his self-obsessed nature, Phil, does his job, complaining of
the mundane nature of reporting on it so many years. The groundhog
ceremony indicates that winter will continue, and subsequently,
despite wanting to leave town, the crew are stuck in a snowstorm, and
Phil has no choice but to return to his hotel and spend the night.
When Phil wakes up he gradually realizes he is living the same day
over again; that is, there is no snow on the ground, and every initial
interaction people have with Phil begins the same. He is the only one
aware of this situation Before getting a full grasp on what is
happening Phil carries on and goes to the Groundhog Day festivities
Phil finds himself trapped in the day, as it repeats itself over and
over again. With this, Phil finds himself with the luxury of acting
differently toward everyone each time, able to gage their different
reactions, and accumulate a variety of knowledge through asking
questions. In this way, the film deals with the nature of free will,
and fatalism. Not only does Phil use his predicament to attempt
several ways in which to win over Rita, but, in the thick of it, he
poses questions aloud such as “What if there were no tomorrow?” to
which the concept of there being no consequences is brought up. “We
could do whatever we wanted,” says a local man Phil talks to. Indeed,
for Phil there is no tomorrow, though, after overcoming the confusion
of existing in the circumstance, and overindulging in the positives of
zero accountability, he becomes depressed. In effort to see the length
to which his “never-ending day” can go, Phil attempts suicide several
times. After he is successful, he is simply sent back to his bed where
the same day begins again, with Phil fully aware of what’s happened,
and everyone else living that same day, with no memory of any passing
time. This concept is cemented, with the argument that this reality is
simply all in Phil’s head void, when the film illustrates both Rita
and Larry identifying Phil’s body at the morgue, before the film cuts
to Phil waking up again. This raises questions about the nature of
this reality, but in Phil being the one constant, individually
changing human being, able to make any new choice, in the midst of an
unchanging world, provides insight into the scope of free will. Free
will as an idea and an action is magnified, as Phil with identical
people, questions, and scenarios, is able to exercise multiple choices
with corresponding reactions and results. Being that free will is
exercised individually, and, as an individual, the only thing we can
control are our own opinions and actions, it is helpful for the film
to keep us focused on Phil, being that his personal choices are the
only thing not fixed.
With this, being that time is still constant for Phil, in terms of
his life and processing of information, he becomes so accustomed to
widespread events that occur, even in near simultaneous time, that he
is able to help and cater to the needs of others, and avoid non ideal
circumstances. While initially thinking of himself as a god, and
attempting to convince Rita of his problem, by showing off the
information he’s gained about total stranger, from previous go around,
he eventual shifts toward simply reaching out to others. Without the
factor of passing time and unpredictability, he is able to learn an
instrument, and generally gain knowledge, both intellectual and
trivial, becoming altruistic, and learning to listen to and appreciate
Rita, until she finally falls him, after they spend time together.
After this, Phil wakes up with Rita, the day having finally passed.
Whether or not one agrees with the “Hollywood ending” of Phil ending
up with the girl and becoming a better person, the movie communicates
the concept, that, in giving ourselves the chance to maximize what is
in our control, and having the knowledge to predict what is out of our
control, we are able to craft the type of existence we lead. Beyond
the constraints of the fated aspects of existence, we are in complete
control at any given moment. In the case of Phil, in order for him to
reach happiness, he resigned himself to the fact that he could not
control that he was stuck in the same day, and given that he had to
exist with the same people, he gave into whatever was fated, and had
the time to conclude what were the best choices that ultilzed his
time, helped himself, and others. Having the distraction of moving
time removed, he was able to realize the importance of other people,
and the casual results of the way he treated them, and himself.