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Mind Blowing Alternate Reality Movies

Is an alternate reality movie the same thing as an alternate timeline?

By Emily McCayPublished 10 years ago 13 min read

The Walter Mitty trailer confused me. I didn't understand, was it an alternate reality movie? By the time I was done with my research on the movie, it was no longer in the theaters. Once I watched it I was still not sure how to describe it, but it left me feeling pretty good. In a medium that doesn’t have many superstars, Mitty is one of the most famous short stories ever written and has been pinging around in the pop culture superconsciousness since it was published in 1939.

In the original story, Walter Mitty is a mild-mannered New Englander who escapes his humdrum and henpecked existence by indulging in heroic daydreams. On a typically depressing shopping excursion with the missus, he dreams of being a pilot, an assassin, a surgeon, and a secret agent. Thurber's story of this ineffectual but imaginative modern man instantly struck a nerve in American culture and even generated its own adjective—Mitty-esque.

The 2013 remake of the film takes its premise from Thurber's short story, but little else. It's polished, sentimental, and less overtly comic than the 1947 adaptation with Danny Kaye. In Stiller's movie, the distinctions between the real world and Walter's fantasies blur and fade as the story progresses. Structurally, Mitty presents a comic variation on a theme with a long history in the annals of speculative fiction: the alternate reality or timeline.

Cinema is a kind of an alternate reality that is particularly good at managing flights of fantasy and paralleled scenarios. Editing techniques, like the smash cut, facilitate the effect in a way that text cannot. Consider the classic Mitty joke: a character in the midst of crisis lapses into a revenge fantasy then snaps back to reality. It's the alternate-timeline-as-micro-comedy bit.

The following alternate reality movies riff on the larger notion of alternate timelines and realities. Most have a conspicuous sci-fi bend, but the alternate timeline idea has drifted into all sorts of genres over the years. The following list is just a sampling of a much larger collection. If you're interested in programming an ambitious home movie night all of the films listed are available on DVD, Blu-ray, or digital download. Consumer advocacy warning: watching two or more alternate reality movies in sequence can be dangerous.

Director Frank Capra's famous Christmas movie, It's a Wonderful Life, takes the alternate reality movie to its logical sentimental conclusion. Poor George Bailey, on the brink of suicide, gets a visit from a guardian angel, who shows him what life in Bedford Falls would have been like had he never been born. The film is based on the short story "The Greatest Gift," which Philip Van Doren Stern wrote in 1939 and published privately in 1945. It is now considered one of the most popular films in American cinema, and is also one of the most parodied films of all time. Due to numerous television showings in the 1980s has become traditional viewing during the Christmas season.

Harlan Ellison's already weird 1969 short story, "A Boy and His Dog," is made into an even weirder and somewhat obscure sci-fi movie starring a young Don Johnson. Both the film and the short story assume an alternate future in which JFK survives an assassination attempt, and the Cold War turns hot. A Boy and His Dog might be mistaken for sci-fi-exploitation, with its lurid sex and misogyny. But it has an unhinged, imaginative appeal and its sideways approach to post-apocalypse culture was an inspiration for the excellent Fallout series of video games.

All three Back to the Future movies deal with alternate timelines by way of that most enduring paradox generator—the time machine, in this case a tricked out DeLorean. The original Back to the Future finds the funny in its premise with Oedipal jokes and some clever easy to miss bits. (After Marty crashes the DeLorean into the tree in 1955, Twin Pines Mall becomes Lone Pine Mall.) The series was in fact inspired by alternate-timeline musings. Zemeckis and Gale wrote the script after Gale mused upon whether he would have befriended his father if they had attended school together. Various film studios rejected the script until the financial success of Zemeckis' Romancing the Stone.

A hugely underrated sci-fi gem, director Alex Proyas' Dark City never found the audience it deserved. The alternate reality movie stars Rufus Sewell as John Murdoch, a man adrift in a city of perpetual night and mysterious origins. Without giving too much away it's safe to say that Dark City plays around with the very foundation of alternate reality movies. Revelations toward the end of the movie suggest that Murdoch's reality is running parallel to a larger, and much more frightening, reality—one in which the world is being assembled by cosmic entities as clueless as they are malevolent. Existentially, it may be one of the scariest movies ever made.

One of the best political sci-fi movies to date, The Matrix posits an alarming parallel universe scenario in which our waking world is actually a simulated reality generated by malicious machines. It's an example of how the movies are good at holding two thoughts at the same time. Crosscutting between multiple stories in parallel is a tricky maneuver but as a visual medium cinema has ways of accommodating this approach. The Matrix does it particularly well, providing a solid foundation for stylish action sequences. The film also demonstrates a great truism: Keanu Reeves is a truly powerful screen presence so long as you keep his dialogue to a minimum.

The cult classic Donnie Darko is one of the most pleasantly confounding mindfucks ever put to film. The film stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a messed-up teenager haunted by prophetic visions of doom and apocalypse. The film bounces around among elements of time travel, teen angst, schizophrenia, and suburban decay. The ending spits everything out in a Mobius strip that demands repeat viewings. Donnie Darko invades your mind and the alternate reality movie is sure to leave an impression. You won't be able to think of anything else thanks to the story's intriguing suggestion that parallel timelines can bleed through and flip back upon one another, if the membrane separating realities gets thin enough.

More horror than sci-fi, Identity is a movie with a twist. The ending turns everything you thought you knew about this film on its head. As an alternate reality movie, it showcases the way in which a filmmaker can generate one reality for the audience while keeping the second reality obscured and still moving in parallel. The nature of the alternate reality in the film is actually pretty familiar, but the timeline of events is carefully executed and the story plays fair within the rules of its own universe.

The inherent paradoxes of time-travel will continue to produce new stories which challenge our conventional notions of time-travel in film. Director Shane Carruth's micro-budget indie Primer dares to think through temporal paradoxes with a team of engineers that accidentally invents a time machine. Primer was famously produced for around $7,000 and the film is worth seeing just to appreciate the resourcefulness of the filmmakers for such a small budget. Primer takes a very literal, cerebral approach to the notion of alternate timelines that can induce headaches or unhealthy obsession.

Squarely in the tradition of alternate history fiction, C.S.A. is a mockumentary film about an American nation where the South won the Civil War. The film presents itself as a British documentary, complete with fake commercials and disclaimers. Director Kevin Willmott packs the film with dark ironic twists; the C.S.A. attacks Japan on December 7, 1941, and the Cold War is fought with abolitionist Canada. Underneath it all is a quietly percolating critique of how we process history and a savage wit that flares up in unexpected moments.

With the wild and wily District 9, South African director Neill Blomkamp digs deep into the allegorical potential of the alternate history story. The set-up: a spacecraft full of extraterrestrial refugees parks above Johannesburg in 1982, prompting an alternate future in which the government confines the aliens to ghettos and internment camps. Blomkamp took his allegory right out of the history books which gives the film a level of realism hard to find in science fiction. District 9 derives much of its political punch from the fact that this alternate future looks very close to our own.

Duncan Jones stunned the world with his cerebral sci-fi movie and debut film Moon. He showed the world he was no joke with his second film Source Code. Jake Gyllenhaal plays US army captain Colter Stevens a man who is put into the titular source code which is a device that allows him to participate in the last few minutes of a man’s life in an alternate timeline to uncover the identity of a train bomber. Gyllenhaal is forced into a brutal groundhogs day as he’s bombed apart again and again as he pieces enough information to change alternate reality and make it into a permanent one. This film offers a cerebral mind-bending thriller like few others.

Zack Snyder pulled off the impossible when he brought the seminal Alan Moore graphic novel to life in this adaptation that most critics saw as unfilmable. Watchmen features an alternate history that is mirrored in our own, but has a few slight alterations, like the rise of costumed superhero vigilantes and how their presence altered the course of 20th-century history. This timeline originally constructed by Alan Moore is so detailed it feels worthy of being taught in actual history classes. We get to see how superheroes affected such history events like World War II and the Vietnam War. How the presence of costumed heroes altered the tastes of pop culture as well as leading to the rise of super beings like Dr. Manhattan. The film is utterly fascinating in its depiction of the Cold War as well as the chilling final solution that ultimately saves the world from nuclear annihilation. A must see for alternate reality movie enthusiasts.

Comics have long since been the playground for alternate timelines and histories. Considering how many different comics have featured reboots and alternate universes, it’s a wonder that it took this long to see it depicted onscreen. But now one of the most famous stories in X-Men history has come to life on the big screen. The future is an apocalyptic mess where nearly all of the mutants have been hunted down and exterminated. Now old frenemies Magneto and Charles Xavier make their final stand as they send Wolverine back in the past to correct history and avoid their apocalyptic fate. This film is a lot of fun. The 1970’s alternate history is great, but you also get the two X-men casts in the same film as well as the grim dark future setting. Not only that, but it also effectively does a soft reboot retconning all of the bad X-men films out of existence.

At this point everyone’s sick of found footage films. They’ve flooded the on-demand section of video libraries because they're cheap and easy to make. It’s no wonder most people are sick of them. But what if there was a found footage film with time travel? And what if there was a more found footage that had the mischievous spirit of Chronicle coupled with the time-bending antics of Back to the Future? Well wonder no more that movie exists and it is Project Almanac, which sees a bunch of teenagers build a time machine and chronicle their Chrono hijinks. Of course if you mess with time it’s not impossible to phase yourself out of reality since time shouldn’t be messed with but the ensuing adventure is a great piece of entertainment for anyone looking for an alternate reality film.

Rian Johnson’s Looper is an absolute masterpiece. The best alternate reality movie ever since Terminator or Back to the Future. A looper is a hitman who is sent to the past to kill people for the future mafia who use time travel as their method to dispose of undesirables. But the Loopers themselves must kill their futures selves to close their loop and receive their final payment. Joseph Gordon Levitt plays a looper who makes the mistake of letting his future self go. What unfolds is an epic action film with a great emotional center where the future version of Joe must confront the sins of his more impulsive and destructive younger self as they try to reconcile their future fate with bullets. A must see film that easily earned director Rian Johnson the right to direct Star Wars Episode 8.

When it comes to non-linear plots and movies with deeply layered narratives which are in charge of hooking the audience and reeling them in slowly, Christopher Nolan is the best in business. We all know how he rescued the Batman’s reputation on the big screen, and reshaped it into a psychological thriller. With seven films in a twelve year period, we can say that Nolan’s work is compact. In Inception, Leo DiCaprio plays a character called Dom Cobb, who is a basically a thief, but a thief that steals information from your dreams. With the help of an Architect, who is responsible for building the world of the dreamer, making them believe that their surroundings are real, Dom enters the dreams of important, powerful people and steals their secrets. A great movie to watch, but skip it if you are high, because you might start wondering if you are really watching this movie, or you are having a dream of a dream, where you dreamt that you are dreaming about watching Inception. Yeah, it can get a bit confusing.

With Dead Ringers,Videodrome, and an unrelenting degree of visual prankishness and physical abuse, Cronenberg became the director whose movies are characterized as "creepy”. However, with eXistenZ, which is by the way unbelievably original, spellbinding, and ecstatic, Cronenberg finally managed to suppress his Provocateur urge and made an ingenious and inspiring movie that is more than just the stuff that comes from bad dreams. In Cronenberg's world, Allegra is a character who is the hottest game designer ever, and her latest thing, "existence," has been the most awaited game since the dawn of gaming. Instead of an Xbox, or PS, the game is played through a “pod”, which is an organic console capable of feeling pain and can even become sick. The development of the game depends upon who's playing it. And to honor the geeks who helped Cronenberg stay on the pages of magazines (when theater owners were too revolted to keep his films on screen), he picked a cast of grownups and teenagers. With the opening scene, where these “gamers” await eagerly for Allegra to appear with the “pod”, he presented his idea of how his fans look like when they are waiting for his new movie. The movie is a bit freaky, especially the scenes where the gamers connect with the “pod”, but it holds your attention, and surprises you at the very end, but that is more than enough said.

Brian Taylor and Mark Neveldine turned on the spotlights and drew critics’ attention to them with their movie Crank movie. But, with Gamer, they will be taken even more seriously. The movie takes place in a not so distant future, and the story is about gamers who play first-person shooters by controlling death-row convicts in reality. They control them through some kind of an implanted nano-chip, which is totally irrelevant to the movie by the way. The best among the cons is Kable (Gerard Butler) controlled by Simon, a skilled teenage gamer. Kable is like the best of the best, a real killing machine. He is on his way to having his 30th victory, which would actually give him his freedom back. However, he knows too much about the game’s creator, Ken Castle’s (Michael C. Hall) grand conspiracy, and has to be eliminated. The movie is not as focused on grand explosions, fighting, and spectacular stunts as it is focused on making the shooting scenes as realistic looking as possible, with massive blood spurts. So, if you are a hardcore gamer, especially a first-person shooter specialist, this movie is just what you have been waiting for.

If there ever was a romantic movie that perfectly described a certain period of humanity, Her is that movie. This is an alternate reality movie that mixes love and technology. The movie is set up in LA, some 10 to 15 years from now, and the story follows Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a lonely man who falls in love with an operating system. Mr. Twombly is a man who is soft on the tongue, and writes love letters for clients of the company “Beautiful Handwritten Letters”. But the biggest irony is that, when it comes to his own life, he is the last person to ask for love advice. He is separated from his wife, and fears an imminent divorce. In his search for a way to forget his wife and to find someone to get close to, Theodore signs up for the OS1, the latest breakthrough operating systems, and gets much more than he hoped for. This movie is actually a perfect example of where our current technology is headed.

Directed by Brad Anderson and based on a screenplay by Scott Kosar, this movie scales the barrier between authentic cinematic nightmare and chilly fantasy. Christian Bale's appearance was the winning touch, and his performance builds to a peak of desperation and savage fury. Trevor works in a machine factory, and it has been a year since he last slept. His sleeplessness and massive weight loss made his bosses suspect that he has drug addiction problems. One day, Trevor was distracted by the staring of a grinning stranger across the shop, and he accidentally activates the drill press while his colleague’s arm was in the press. Needless to say that his colleague, Miller (Michael Ironside), lost his arm. The grinning stranger, Ivan (John Sharian), becomes the key element in the elaborate conspiracy closing in on Trevor, and the strangest thing is that no one else acknowledges Ivan’s existence. This is actually a story about how suppressed memories always come up to the surface, and play some nasty mind tricks with you.

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Emily McCay

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