Top Three Alternate Reality Films

So then, what’s an Alternate Reality Movie? Well, you know the kind of thing, when that puzzling scene appears on screen and 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. 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 Ever Alternate Reality Movies – my top three

The Top Three Alternate Reality Movies Twelve monkeys


1. 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!

The Top Three Alternate Reality Movies Franklyn


2. Franklyn (2008, dir: Gerald McMorrow) 9/10

This underrated, extravagant, gem from first time director Gerald McMorrow was described on Wikipedia as a ‘science fantasy’; I must disagree with the ‘science’ part, though. Franklyn (the name is never explained) is really a portrait of despair, alienation and broken hearts, and how one copes with these things (i.e. by spinning personal fantasies). Its plot is tortuously complex, multi-layered and virtually indescribable; I must nevertheless try. Franklyn’s main character, Emilia, is played by Eva Green, a disaffected film student who creates a set of video ‘suicides’ – all in the name of art, you understand. (Before performing these risky acts of self-harm she dials the emergency services, who may or may not succeed in rescuing her.)

Overlapping Emilia’s story is that of Jonathan Preest (Ryan Phillippe), a masked ‘hero’ seeking out a child molester among the dog-eat-dog, urban deprivation of Meanwhile City – all weird religions, and steam-punk fashion. But ‘Preest’, we can see, is a fantasy figure, witnessed among the City’s other characters (straight out of Sin City or V for Vendetta). Yet we also meet them as real people in our own 3D world. Or do we?

For example, Brit actor Bernard Hill is an official at the Ministry in Meanwhile City whereas in the real world he is Peter Esser, a bereft church warden seeking his errant son, David. Also, there’s the ever watchable Art Malik who plays Tarrant, the head of the Ministry; in ‘real life’ he’s a military psychiatrist whom Esser visits (David – a veteran of the Iraq war – being the ‘real world’ version of Preest).

If this isn’t complicated enough, there’s also Milo (Sam Riley) whose recent engagement has been called off, and Milo’s flame-haired, childhood friend ‘Sally’, who he invented to cope with the loss of his father. (‘Sally’ is also played by Eva Green, which confuses things – nothing new there, then.) Emilia is also traumatised by some unnamed abuse (by her father). These ‘real life’ parts of the film anchor it with an emotional weight that balances out the obvious fictional sequences – like the dark, graphic-novel of Meanwhile City. Or do they?

So far, so unclear. We can see that what unites David/Preest, Esser, Milo and Emilia is that they’ve all lost something – a sister, a son, a fiancée and, in Emilia’s case, childhood innocence. We watch, baffled, for the first hour, aware that they’re all related in some meaningful way – but how? Will all these strands converge at the end, and reveal the answer? What we need to know is: from whose point of view are we seeing this?

Warning – spoilers appear from here! At the climax, Milo and ‘Sally’ sit in a restaurant on a rain-soaked night in urban London; another patron is there too – Peter Esser. Across the road is Emilia’s gloomy flat, and David – equipped with rifle – has forced his way in, intending to shoot his father through an open window. More clues follow: David spies Emilia’s drawings, which resemble the Ministry in Meanwhile City. At one point, Sally looks at Milo and asks: ‘Can’t you feel it? It’s nearly time.’ Across the road, Emilia has threatened to blow herself and David up. This is the point where her suicide fantasies become real. It’s nearly time. Before she exits, tossing a zippo lighter into the gas-filled room, the flat becomes an image from Meanwhile City – complete with Jonathan Preest. (There’s a clue here if you’ve been paying attention!)

The flat explodes and erupts in flames with David still in it, as Emilia runs into the street below. There she finds Milo, wet and injured from gunshot whilst the ambulance has mysteriously vanished. ‘You’re hurt,’ Emilia says to Milo. The camera pans upwards and we see lingering shots of Gothic spires and dingy rooftops and realise we’ve seen them before – we’re in Meanwhile City, after all! We’re seeing things – have been seeing things – from Emilia’s point of view.

You have to look hard for these clues, though. Franklyn is a film that doesn’t yield its mysteries easily, which is as much down to the direction as it is the script – both ably handled by McMorrow. Like the best personal relationships, Franklyn demands your time, attention and understanding. (And rewards them, too!) It divides the critics into two camps – one which likes it for its refusal to signpost inner meanings; the other, which dismisses it as phoney ‘art house pretension’. But this is because, like any genuine mystery, you either get or you don’t. It’s said that for those who believe in God, no rational explanation is necessary; for those who don’t, none is even possible. I prefer to think that Franklyn is a just little like that!

The Top Three Alternate Reality Movies Cypher


3. Cypher (2002, dir: Vincenzo Natali) 9/10

The Cambridge dictionary offers two illuminating definitions of the word ‘cipher’ (the correct way to spell this word) as a ‘person without power, but used by others for their own purposes.’ The other definition says it’s an encoded ‘system of writing that prevents most people from understanding the message’. Both of these statements refer obliquely to what’s really happening at the core of  the excellent Cypher, directed by Vincenzo Natali. You’ll need to watch it at least twice, though. Most people will assuredly be ‘prevented from understanding the message’ first time around.

Cypher is one of the best unsung Alternate Reality movies of all time. An intelligent script from Brian King plays fast and loose with viewer expectations, as it skilfully hides far more than it shows. This, however, makes the final reveal all the more rewarding. How to describe it? Well, let’s start with ‘twisty sci-fi with shades of film noir, a futuristic thriller rooted in corporate espionage.’

Cypher concerns the ineffectual and diffident Morgan Sullivan (Northam) who works for software company, Digicorp. Sent on a secret mission to spy on a rival firm, he secretly records its seminars through a micro-device housed in a pen, something so clichéd that James Bond would wince with embarrassment. The plot thickens, as they say, with the arrival of a mystery woman, Rita Foster (Lucy Liu), whose evident seductive charms aren’t wasted on Sullivan. He’s been told to assume the alias of Jack Thursby, as he ingratiates himself into the shady hi-tech world that is Sunway Systems. He even wakes up one morning to find he – apparently – really is Thursby, complete with a new house, and new wife, there to greet him as he sets off for work.

However, we soon sense far more going on beneath the surface, a much bigger story arc, and it turns out we’re right. It all goes back to the mysterious Rita, with whom Sullivan/Thursby has become entangled. He’s asked to trust her over and over, but can he? Then there is the bombshell: an even shadier figure (whom no one has ever seen) has been subtly pulling strings, by playing Digicorps and Sunways Systems off against each other.

This is one Sebastian Rooks, a wealthy, dangerous freelancer who must sabotage one of these companies in a dangerous mission. He sends Sullivan/Thursby to retrieve a computer disk from the heavily fortified Sunways vault. Apparently, his very life depends on the successful retrieval of said disk. In an action sequence of manoeuvres worthy of the Mission Impossible franchise, the disk is switched and our hero escapes in the nick of time with help from Rita and a helicopter. The disk must then be delivered to a secret location, a large mansion, where our hero will find Rooks.

To digress awhile, perhaps this isn’t strictly speaking an Alternate Reality film, though it’s clear the film’s environment has a strange otherness – hinted at in its bleached out colour, sombre lighting and mild mood of paranoia. Sullivan’s wife, always nagging him for being such a loser, somehow has an air of unreality. As if she was merely following a script – within the movie itself.

Remember when Jim Carrey, in the Truman Show, realised that his life was nothing more than an elaborate screenplay, and everyone was in on it? This is the vague impression created by Cypher. None of this seems quite normal, and Sullivan/Thursby is clearly having some kind of experience. But what kind, exactly? Has he been drugged? Or is everything here some kind of Matrix-like virtual reality? And just who the hell is Rita?

Here come the spoilers. The alternative reality, for most of the film’s 95 minute running time is reserved for Sullivan/Thursby. It is he – and he alone – who’s undergoing an entirely different understanding of the events we see. This sounds confusing, but read on. Our hero is not the bookish wimp we think he is, and indeed, he thinks he is. He isn’t the man we see trapped in a loveless marriage with an overbearing wife. Nor is he the out-of-his-depth, bespectacled worm who falls for a sexy femme-fatale. He is none of these things. He is Sebastian Rooks. The problem is that he doesn’t know it yet.

Rita awaits him at the mansion when the disk is delivered, though he’d been told she was about to lead him to his death, and that once in possession of the disk, Rooks would kill him. Our anxious hero shoots Rita in the arm in an awkward scuffle, at which point he’s summoned to meet The Man. As he waits, it dawns on our hero that he is himself the man  he’s been sent to meet. This is the Big Reveal. His head swirls: a bottle of his favourite whisky, his preferred brand of cigarette, his golf clubs and a photo of him and Rita, are all there in the room.

The whole identity charade has been his own invention – a self-hypnosis to get past Digicorp’s powerful  security and scanning technologies. He needed to convince himself he was someone else, first! The whole thing has been designed by Sebastian Rooks – right down to the counterfeit, nagging wife. If he can remember how to fly the helicopter he built they can escape.

Still, though, we don’t know what was on the disk Rooks stole, and why he had to have it. And we don’t know who Rita is! Not until the last scene. On a luxury boat out on the ocean, we learn Sebastian Rooks and Rita Foster are lovers. The disk contains sensitive information on her, indeed, it’s a digital death warrant. Rooks ceremoniously slings the disc into the sea. All of the preceding was done for love. Mystery solved. Reality restored.

Other cultural links can be found here: Eckhart Tolle review

Film posters from Wikipedia(fair usage)