In late 1998, a friend of mine thrust into my hands a book he had just read called Fight Club. Upon receiving it, I remarked that I'd heard a film based on it was being made.
My friend responded with the observation that adapting the first-person novel into a movie would be very difficult because its central narrative device was "inherently unfilmable".
As anyone who's read the book or seen the film knows, the "unfilmable" aspect my friend was referring to is actually perfectly suited to film, a medium in which we are trained to accept whatever reality is presented to us at face value.
Fight Club's central gimmick arguably works even better on film than on the page. In retrospect, I wish I hadn't read the book before I saw the film, as I appreciated the way the film told the story more than the book, and you can only experience it for the first time once.
Director David Fincher exploited the parameters of cinema to pull off a wholly satisfying, reality-bending magic trick.
All films create their own reality, but some films delight in subverting that reality to serve their story.
Much tension can be drawn out having the viewer or the characters come to question if what they're seeing/experiencing is the cinematic truth of the story.
The original Total Recall is one such film and the new remake's marketing campaign points to this central device with the poster tagline "What is real?". To mark the release this week of the new Total Recall (n.b. It's pants), I'm going to cite my favourite examples of films that effectively play around with reality.
I'm gonna go ahead and issue a big ol' SPOILER WARNING here as I will be discussing significant plot revelations, although I won't be spoiling any super-recent films.
To generalise wildly, I see three basic types of reality-bending movies. The first is what I call 'Functional', where the reality-bending forms a tangible part of the story being told, and comes about as a result of some sort of technology or device.
Total Recall, which centres on a machine that can create memories, comes under this category, but the most well-known example is probably The Matrix, in which it is revealed that the world our main character inhabited is actually a simulation created by artificial intelligence overlords who use humans as batteries.
Even for viewers who didn't know going in that Neo (Keanu Reeves) lived in an artificial world, the filmmakers revelled in foreshadowing the revelation.
For The Matrix, co-writer/directors the Wachowskis appropriated concepts that had long-existed in literary sci-fi, but the scope of their filmmaking ambition made them seem fresh again. For now, The Matrix is the definitive "the world as we know it is a lie" film.
Released in America just one month after The Matrix in April 1999, David Cronenberg's eXistenZ is another Functional take on reality-bending, albeit with a healthy helping of Cronenbergian body horror.
Set in the future, the film focuses on gaming technology that allows players to tap into a reality indistinguishable from our own via gruesome body "ports". Naturally, things get confusing.
eXistenZ's reality-tampering is great sci-fi fun and the film is definitely worth seeing, but the message about the potential dangers of succumbing to artificial worlds feels a little hamfisted at this stage.
Released just TWO months after The Matrix was another example of Functional reality-bending - a fantastic little sci-fi flick called The Thirteenth Floor.
Inspired by a 1964 novel called Simulcron-3 and produced by uber-director Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, 2012), the awesomely Twilight Zone-ish plot concerns a tech company that has constructed a photo-real simulation of 1937 Los Angeles which the lead character must enter to investigate the murder of his boss. Once again, realities come under question and nothing is what it seems.
The Thirteenth Floor was more or less ignored on its released, but is well-worth seeking out if you like this sort of thing. Dark City, Alex Proyas' minor cult classic from 1998, is another Functional sci-fi reality bender well-worth checking out.
2010's Inception is another reality-bending film that hinges some sort of technology. Although the characters are aware they're going into dreams, the vagaries of the process require the use of personal 'totems' which help determine if they're in reality or not. A lot of tension is derived from the ambiguity in this area.
The 1997 Spanish film Open Your Eyes is one of my all-time favourite reality-bending films, and I'm even a fan of its lambasted 2001 American remake Vanilla Sky. Both are a combination of the Functional style of reality-bending and the second style I have identified, which I shall refer to as 'Psychological'.
A Psychological reality-bender is where the subversion of reality comes about as a result of a character's perception playing tricks on them, and by extension, the viewer.
Fight Club fits this description, and to specifically address what I referred to at the start of this blog, manifests onscreen as a fully-formed character (Tyler Durden played by Brad Pitt) who is later revealed to be a separate personality in the mind of the protagonist (played by Edward Norton).
Like I said, film is the perfect medium to execute this gambit, and while Fight Club wasn't the first film to employ it (does Harvey count?), it's certainly one of the most effective. It inspired a rash of lesser films with similar revelations (A Beautiful Mind, Identity), but none had the impact of Fight Club.
Trying to identify anything resembling a definitive reality in any David Lynch film is generally a futile task, but his 2001 masterpiece Mulholland Drive messes with such concepts in such a thrilling manner, I had to cite it here.
After watching a story involving a naïve ingenue (Naomi Watts) and an amnesiac bombshell (Laura Harring) play out for 45 minutes, the plot appears to take a sudden left turn which brings into question everything we have just seen. The ambiguities of the film take on terrifying implications and little is resolved. I freaking love it. Definitely one of the best examples of a Psychological reality-bending film.
Roman Polanski's 1965 film Repulsion has fun creating its own horrific reality by taking us deep into the mind of an unreliable narrator, played by Catherine Deneuve.
Both versions of Solaris play around with reality but stop short of definitively stating if the changes are coming about merely in the main characters' head, or as a direct result of a mysterious planet. I find this kind of ambiguity often works in a reality-bending story's favour.
The ending of The Usual Suspects throws doubt over everything that's come before it, but in this case the unreliable narrator is taking a much more active role in the deception. Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island uses the unreliable narrator device in an interesting way also.
There is a sub-genre of 'Psychological' reality-benders that is commonly known as the 'Death Dream'. These are stories where everything is revealed at the end to have been a dying fantasy from the main character. My favourite example of this is Adrian Lyne's 1990 thriller Jacob's Ladder, which scared the bejeezus out of me when I first saw it.
Tim Robbins plays a soldier who returns home from Vietnam and experiences bizarre and traumatic hallucinations. Was the government experimenting on his platoon with tainted weed, or is there something more sinister going down? I think you already know.
There have been heaps of Death Dream movies (2008's The Escapist is a recent example), and one of the most well-regarded examples is the Oscar-winning 1962 French short An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. The short was adapted from Ambrose Bierce's 1890 short story, which is the grand-daddy of ALL Death Dream stories. The film later screened as an episode of my beloved Twilight Zone.
The 2005 film Stay, starring Ryan Gosling and Ewan McGregor, is another classic Death Dream take, but it's not very good. The ending of Terry Gilliam's 1985 masterpiece Brazil is a particularly devastating variation on the Death Dream sub-genre. Some people like to apply this thinking to Sergio Leone's under-seen masterpiece Once Upon A Time In America.
The third type of reality-bending film I have decided to call 'Storybook'. This is where there are some storytelling elements in the plot and exactly what is what comes under question in this context. Films like The Neverending Story employ this device in a very gentle sense, but a better example may be The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, from Brazil director Terry Gilliam.
It's a subject Gilliam keeps coming back to. I haven't seen either of them, but I gather his more recent films Tideland and The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus both involve such themes.
I always found it heartbreaking how the ending of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang seemed to indicate the whole adventure was just a game of make-believe. It just didn't seem fair.
A great example of Storybook reality-bending from the world of TV is the justly-revered mini-series The Singing Detective.
Charlie Kaufman's typically confounding 2008 magnum opus Synecdoche, New York compounds and separates realities with a combination of both Psychological and Storybook techniques. I really enjoyed the film, but I struggled to discern any definitive throughline.
* What are your favourite reality-bending movies? Would you consider them Functional, Psychological or Storybook variations? Do you agree with my three classifications? Comment below!
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