Top Three Alternate Reality Films

All so-called Alternate Reality Movies should have that puzzling scene that makes you ask:  ‘is this happening for real now, or is it in his/her head?’ There’s a whole raft of movies whose protagonists exist in some other dimension than this one, and one of the most successful (and complex) is Christopher Nolan’s psychological thriller Inception from 2010, where the action takes place in a character’s unconscious mind. Some Alternate Reality Movies, instead of occurring in another dimension, take place in a different timeline, like when Jimmy Stewart meets the amateur guardian angel in It’s A Wonderful Life, showing how life would have been in his home town had he not existed. (Visiting different timelines is a recurring feature of the brilliant, early Twilight Zone episodes, too.) Nowadays, digitized, simulated ‘virtual reality’ is the excuse for some of the best Alternate Reality Movies, providing new, solid fuel for the imagination (The Thirteenth Floor, The Matrix, Vanilla Sky).

The Alternate Reality Movie is usually a sub-genre of the Science Fiction film, though not all AR creations are about science, time travel, or AI and its imagined possibilities. (The wilfully bizarre Being John Malkovich, or David Fincher’s equally quirky Fight Club, for example). Whilst they’re often visually impressive, you do need to pay close attention to the storyline. This was never more so than with Donnie Darko, Richard Kelly’s 2001 tale of disturbed adolescence and time-travel in modern, small-town America. But here – uniquely – you need to know the key to what’s actually happening with the plot, or you’ll most likely never understand it! Thankfully, all is explained online  and there are even dedicated websites out there which let you in on the secret.

But, like all Alternate Reality Movies, once you ‘get’ that other dimension and how to relate to it, everything starts to fit. Despite how outwardly weird these movies may seem, they (usually) make sense on some level. On other occasions, it’s still just as baffling, and whichever way you twist it, you finish the film – and your popcorn – none the wiser. One of cinema’s presiding geniuses here is the brilliant and defiantly obscure David Lynch, who clearly enjoys playing with ‘different’ interpretations of reality. In particular, check out the creepy Lost Highway, the confusing Mulholland Drive, and the classic first season of Twin Peaks.

So, whilst all of the above mentioned movies in this series are highly recommended, here are my personal, favourite, unmissable Alternate Reality Movies.

The Best Alternate Reality Movies – Part One

The Top Three Alternate Reality Movies Twelve monkeys


Twelve Monkeys (1995, dir: Terry Gilliam) 9/10

From a script by David and Janet Peoples, Twelve Monkeys is partly based on Chris Marker’s meditation on the nature of time and memory, La Jetée from 1962. It also happens to be director Terry Gilliam’s unsung masterpiece. Set in Philadelphia, in 2035, five-sixths of humanity have been destroyed by a fatal virus whilst a few survivors stay underground – prisoners and the Scientists who rule over them with the ‘Permanent Emergency Code’.

In Twelve Monkeys we’re introduced to a world crushed by Authority’s iron fist. Minor infringements are called crimes against the state, and the subterranean convicts are caged like wild animals, just as wild animals – immune to the epidemic – roam free above. It seems Gilliam revels in depicting how bad things can be if we allow our masters total power. He’s interested in other kinds of power, too – the raw nature of electricity, for example: ‘Having used Croydon power station for Brazil, I was obsessed with power stations and the technology within them.’

Everywhere there’s heavy surveillance, body searches and the implication that science and technology can save us if only we bow to its power and efficiency. (Efficient it ain’t, though, wonky technology being another common Gilliam theme). From this oppressive, inhuman nightmare of 2035, prisoner, James Cole (Bruce Willis) is sent back to 1996 to discover how the virus was released. Cue a succession of mishaps, not least of which is when Cole ends up in 1990, taken for a mental patient and then incarcerated. Here he meets would-be eco-terrorist, hyper-active Jeffrey Goines (a cast-against-type Brad Pitt), the son of virologist Dr. Goines (Christopher Plummer). Another key character is Dr. Goines’ shadowy assistant, Dr. Peters (David Morse).

Most of the plot turns on Cole’s relationship to his psychiatrist Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe). Cole somehow escapes to 1996 and is re-united with Railly, whom he promptly kidnaps. It’s around this point that she starts to believe that Cole is really who he says he is, ironically, at the point where Cole starts to doubt his own sanity. The pair become fugitives as they search for the source of the deadly virus, leading to the climactic scene in an airport as Dr. Peters escapes with it. We’re ready for the Big Reveal.

Spoiler Alert!

Some critics found the film confusing, due to the obvious paradox with time travel into the past. In that same airport, a young boy is accompanied by his parents. His mother quite audibly calls him James – for this is the younger Cole back in the 1990’s. He sees a blond-wigged man gunned down by the authorities as he pursues someone. It’s the elder Cole, trying to stop Dr. Peters. But if the young Cole can witness his own death in 1996, why is he still alive in 2035? This is the Grandad paradox, the notion that you could in theory go back far in enough in time to murder your own grandfather – at which point you don’t exist any more! So how can there be two Coles in that airport?

Maybe what we’re seeing is an act of imagination. In the present, 2035, Cole hears a disembodied voice calling him ‘Bob’ and saying: ‘Maybe I’m in the next cell, another volunteer like you … maybe I’m just in your head. No way to confirm anything.’ Maybe the entire film, or much of it, is Cole’s imagination. But the key to understanding it is in its graphic clue: the circular mandala of twelve monkeys. This symbolises eternity, the never ending round of existence and time, with neither beginning nor end. This certainly describes Twelve Monkeys, which has no real starting point, or end point, everything destined to go around in circles.

But what would happen if Cole – when sent back from 2035 to meet Railly – did things differently? Made other choices? Would events transpire in the same way? Would he still have to die? The irony is that if Cole and Railly had sat on their hands the virus would never have gotten free. The laconic, sinister-looking Dr Peters only gets hold of the virus as a result of Cole and Railly trying to prevent it escaping in the first place!

In its way, Twelve Monkeys is a kind of sequel to Brazil, Gilliam’s pseudo-Orwellian classic from 1986. It’s as if its hero, Sam Lowry, was returning to consciousness once more, struggling through another totalitarian post-apocalypse. But where Lowry retreats into fantasy, Cole has no such escape hatch. Or does he? I noted earlier that it’s possible to read Cole’s misadventures as fantasy, in which case you’d have to wonder why one would willingly create scenarios of such blood-spattered doom.

Despite my opinion that this is classic fare, it was mauled by the critics on release: ‘bleak and confused’ or ‘a spectacular mess’, they said. (In fact it is far from confused!) It garnered zero stars in Halliwell’s Film Guide, too (though it did earn $120 million dollars worldwide). The esteemed Roger Ebert wasn’t so quick to dismiss it, though, and I think I know why. Twelve Monkeys is a wake up call that’s just as relevant today. Its message (and Gilliam’s) is that reliance on the state (and technology) is a risky undertaking – that it cannot and should not be trusted. Maybe it’s this very bleak underlying theme that put off the critics – for it surely is that: bleak. Oppressively so. It offers no hope, no salvation. The notion that the end of the civilised world is not simply due, but that we’re living in it now is indeed depressing. And it certainly feels this way in cheery old 2019!

Other cultural links can be found here: Eckhart Tolle review

Film posters from Wikipedia(fair usage)



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