Cue The ‘Scrapers

The world is a fake and there are good reasons to believe it has been a set up from the start. When Thomas Anderson awakes from the dream that was his “real life” to discover that he is really Neo, The Matrix [1999] plugs into one of the most pervasive themes of contemporary cinema – that the world is a simulation. With this discovery comes the realisation that the centre of the world, the self, is perhaps also a shifting set of fictions. It’s a theme that touches on profound philosophical inquiry, mixed with the pop iconography of our times, and draws on a literature of the fantastic to provocatively literalise metaphors into exotic alternative realities.

It’s perhaps inevitable that popular cinema opts for a romantic notion of the self where most crises are resolved as external problems. In this view, the self is immutable and central, and as the external world may appear to change, doubt is the result of outside forces. This view has been found in cinema since The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari [1920] but the film that anticipates our current obsessions most vividly is John Frankenheimer’s classic The Manchurian Candidate [1962].

Major Bennett Marco suffers from nightmares featuring his former platoon sergeant Raymond Shaw, the recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor. No one can recall the exact details of how Shaw received his citation for combat heroism in Korea. Troubled by his visions and nagging doubts, Marco begins to investigate. What transpires is a lurid tale of brainwashing at the hands of the Communist Chinese as Marco discovers that Shaw has been primed to assassinate the Vice President-elect. Each time Marco tries to recall his own brainwashing, the film presents a stunning tableaux of false memories and alternate realities but, through a sheer act of will, Marco acts to stop the assassination by deprogramming himself, rediscovering “reality” and averting political disaster.


It is now accepted that what might appear to be an objective political reality is a concoction of propaganda, brainwashing and smart advertising. This notion has a long history in po[ular cinema. The conspiracy films of the early 1970s that tapped into the cynicism of the post-Watergate era – films that included Executive Action [1973], Three Days of The Condor [1975] and All The President’s Men [1976] – centered on the now commonly held view that Government is behind “conspiracies” and can bend and distort public perceptions to suit its needs.

The Parallax View [1974] proposed a more complex scenario where the main character’s view of his “reality” and “true self” were cut adrift. Investigating the assassination of a US Senator with presidential aspirations, journalist Joe Frady discovers that the Parallax Corporation, a ‘therapy institute’, is a front for a politically motivated group that uses advanced conditioning techniques to cultivate would-be assassins. At first it seems that Frady can resist the conditioning as he poses as someone with the right personality but soon his psychlogical status becomes increasingly ambiguous – is Frady a journalist faking that he is brainwashed – or is he an assassin who really is brainwashed? Like Oswald, Frady is eliminated.

These films seem quaint today and, like The Manchurian Candidate, their big revelations are seen as commonplace realities. Indeed, when the 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate cast an actor with a startling physical resemblance to Vice President Dick Cheney to play a prominent politician, it wasn’t so much a case of provocation but rather one of filmic realism. What has changed is that audiences accept that the very fabric of space and time is pliable and that “reality” is physically located just beyond the one that seems most apparent. The Matrix and its sequels exemplify this idea but it’s a thread that has been running since Blade Runner [1982] [1]. Total Recall [1990] Ghost In The Shell [1995] Abre los Ojos [1997], The Truman Show [1998] Dark City [1998], Waking Life [2001] and Imposter [2002] all toy with the notion of self in the context of an uncertain external universe. Alongside these films are the movies adapted from scripts by Charlie Kaufman including Being John Malkovich [1999] and Adaptation [2002]. Kaufman’s movies are narratives that propose radically decentered selves using multiple personalities, doubles and mirror worlds but which ultimately opt for the certainty of an immutable self [2].

Films that attribute identity crises as external manipulations ultimately retreat into dualisms of self/other, real/fake, inside/outside, good/evil. Matrix Reloaded [2003], the second in the Matrix Trilogy, concluded with the tantalising suggestion that the “real” into which Neo had escaped was just another simulation – and that Thomas Anderson was not Neo, but perhaps a third or fourth identity and so on, ad infinitum – but in Matrix Revolutions [2003] the narrative collapsed into a solipsistic closed-circuit that relied heavily on archaic and mystical notions of the self. Movies such as The Forgotten [2004] suggest that the main character’s understanding of what is real is based on her own estranged, abnormal psychology but ultimately a more mundane, if extraterrestrial, explanation is offered [3].

If the external worlds of these films are reflections of their main character’s psychologies and, if these external worlds are fakes, it could be argued that so too are the identities of the protagonists. Few films have seemed willing to tackle this idea. Fight Club [1999] utilised a split personality rendered literally to depict an [albeit] ironic heterosexual male emasculation. The fighting of the movie’s title allow its characters to discover something more ‘real’ than their everyday existence – and to be ultimately confronted not by the world at large, but by the self. Jack idolizes Tyler Durden and follows him everywhere, even as Durden creates a paramilitary organisation bent on terrorist acts. Jack protests only to discover that Tyler is a phantasm of his own making. The denouement of the film is among the most radical of recent cinema; although both sides of Jack’s personality are ultimately reconciled through the destruction of the illusion – as in the twins of Kaufman’s Adaptation – Jack embraces the alternative reality. Cue explosions – and the skyscrapers fall.

“I’m feeling a little disconnected from my real life. I’m kinda losing touch with the texture of it. You know what I mean? I actually think there is an element of psychosis involved here.”

David Cronenberg’s films have been long concerned with such questions of sifting identity eXistenZ [1999] is a typically perverse example [4]. Security agent Ted Pikul rescues the virtual reality game designer Allegra Geller when a Realist Underground hit squad attempt to assassinate her. Escaping to a safe house, Pikul and Geller decide to enter Geller’s V.R. game [an exact simulacrum of the outside world] to find clues to the attack. Inside the game, however, identities and realities become increasingly confused as they enter into a V.R. game within the game. “I’m feeling a little disconnected from my real life,” says Pikul at one point. “I’m kinda losing touch with the texture of it. You know what I mean? I actually think there is an element of psychosis involved here.” Escaping from the game as it comes under attack, the ‘real world’ is revealed to be four times removed as the game -and the game within the game – are part of yet another game. No one is sure if reality is real and who is who. Someone asks “is this still the game?” before being promptly killed.

One of the most interesting films to tackle the subject of alternative identities is also one of the least known. Cypher [2002] follows Jack Thursby, an an unhappy office drone living in suburbia. Offered an exciting new job with computer company Digicorp, Thursby goes undercover to spy on corporate competitors. While travelling around the United States to various trade fairs, Thursby discovers that he is actually Morgan Sullivan, and that his identity as Thursby was a brainwash that enabled him to become a double agent. Where most films opt for just one revelation, Cypher takes a third step – Sullivan discovers that his second identity as Sullivan is also a fake. He is a computer genius named Sebastian Rook who has engineered a war between Digicorp and its rival to eliminate both. Unfortunately for Rook, the conclusion of the film may not signify his “real self “ but rather the uncomfortable realisation that this third identity is a concoction, perhaps of a fourth identity, or more provocatively still, reflexively acknowledging that he is a fictional character in a movie called Cypher.


[1] One might also add the recent spate of zombie movies to this category including 28 Days Later [2002], the remake of Day of The Dead [2004] and Land of The Dead [2005], Vanilla Sky [2001] – the Hollywood remake of Abre Los Ojos – the ‘virtual reality’ films of the early 1990s and experiments in decentered personalities such as Todd Solondz’s Palindromes [2004].

[2] Kaufman’s films and others mentioned here owe a direct debt to the work of Philip K. Dick, one the most adapted authors for contemporary narratives of altered selves and realities.

[3] The Forgotten also connects the current cycle of altered reality films to the conspiracy movies of the 1970s via its extraterrestrial theme and the TV series The X-Files [1993-2003].

[4] Cronenberg’s Videodrome [1983] is the most explicitly connected to eXistenZ using TV instead of V.R. to transport its character to an altered mind state and uses and almost identical ending, but see also Dead Ringers [1988], Naked Lunch [1991] and Spider [2002].

Andrew Frost, “Other Worlds”, Photofile #77 [better than] The Real Thing, Autumn, 2006.


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