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.


Towards infinity


“Sublimity. This attribute of objects of sight seldom occurs on the face of nature, in its natural state, comparatively with most of those which have been enumerated. Mountain scenery, how grand or magnificent it may be, is now, on that account, the more sublime-, an extent of water, though wide as the sea itself, will not admit of the epithet, while it remains in a calm, unagitated state; any more than will an extent of country covered with snow; unless the idea of unbounded space raise it in some degree: but how infinitely more is this idea capable of exciting it, in viewing space itself, — in beholding the universe, — in looking towards infinity!

“The sublime seems to require that the higher degrees of astonishment should be roused, to demonstrate its presence: a degree of terror, if not of horror, is required to produce the more forcible emotions of the mind, which Sublimity is capable of exciting.

“A giant precipice, frowning over its base, whether we view it from beneath, or look downward from its brink, is capable of producing sublime emotions. A river tumbling headlong over such a precipice, especially if it be viewed with difficulty and a degree of danger, real or imaginary, still heightens those emotions. Lightning, thunder, and hurricanes may produce them.

“But, of all natural scenery, the ocean, agitated by a violent storm, attended with thunder and lightning, is perhaps the most capable of filling the mind with sublime emotions, and most especially the mind of a spectator who is himself exposed on its frail surface; and who is not incapable, either from constant habit, or from an excess of apprehension, of contemplating the scenery which surrounds him.

“On the whole, sublimity must rouse some extraordinary emotion in the mind; it cannot be dwelt on with indifference, by an eye unhabituated to its effects, and a mind possessing the least sensibility. Magnificence, grandeur, or simple greatness, may excite some degree of astonishment; but it must be unmixed with awe; the emotions they excite are of the more pleasurable kind. Ugliness disgusts; yet when adorned, it is capable of giving delight; as a contrast to the more rational gratifications of ornamented beauty. All that simple beauty has to bestow is pleasure, heightened, perhaps, by a degree of admiration. Even simplicity, in a state of polished neatness, is capable of giving a degree of pleasure; but, in a state of slovenliness and neglect, it disgust, as ugliness, or deformity, which is simplicity, or beauty, disgustingly defaced.”

Ashfield, Andrew & de Bolla, Peter, eds. The Sublime: A reader in British eighteenth-century aesthetic theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1996. William Marshall, from A review of The Landscape, a didactic poem (1795). pp 276-277.

Image: Alexander McKenzie, Day Landing, 2008. Oil on linen. 137 x 197 cm. Martin Browne Fine Art

New Vision of a Visionless World


“Over the last seventy-five years it has been science fiction, more than any other genre, that has appropraited [the Hegelian] vision and continued to develop it. In 1926 Hugo Gernsback published the world’s first magazine dedicated to science fiction, and even in the introduction to that first issue, science fiction was already designated as “a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision.” Here, the ideas of “science”, “vision” and “future” (suggested by “prophecy”) are already clearly indicated. From these three ideas emerged the golden age of the forties, followed successively by other grand “prophetic visions” such as Robert Heinlein’s Future Histories series and Issac Asimov’s Galatic Empire series (1950-52).

“Ironically, it was precisely at this time that grand narratives like these were becoming obsolete in the real world. The thirties marked the dawn of science fiction and at the same time saw the Nazi’s narrative give birth to Auschwitz and witnessed the Marxist-Lenninist narrative turn into Stalinism. By this time, science fiction’s American consumers were probably aware that it was the uncontrollable spread of these “sciences” and “prophetic visions” that was causing the world to fall apart. Of course, people cannot live without some sort of dream or vision…

“This essence of the genre hasn’t changed much. On its surface, of course, science fiction has gone through a huge transformation since the forties. […]. If someone were to ask what characteristic lies at the core of science fiction, I believe that many fans would still say it is the “grand narrative” or “grand vision.” For science fiction to be science fiction, some kind of vision must be proposed, even if it is a vision of science’s failure or of a dark, foreboding future.In the eighties, cyberpunk filled this role. It was not that the worlds of cyberpunk lacked vision, these authors captured readers’ attention precisely because of their elegant new vision of a visionless world.

“At the core of the science fiction genre lies the paradoxical doctrine that it must continue to depict visions, even when grand visions are impossible. In other words, it is in science fiction that the ideal of the nineteenth century philosophy – the desire for the whole of twentieth century philosophy had to reject – still lives and breathes.”

SF as Hamlet: Science Fiction and Philosophy, Azumi Hiroki [trans. Miri Nakamura], in Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams: Japanese Science Fiction from Origins to Anime. Christopher Bolton, Istvan Csicsery-Romay Jr & Takayuki Tatsumi [eds]. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2007. pp 77-78.

Romance and wonder


“One of the main reasons for describing science fiction as a form of romance is that its subject-matter is romantic: in Shelley’s words, it is not concerned with ‘ordinary relations of existing events.’ Modern SF has done its best to convey the sheer excitement [and horror] of the vistas opened up by science and technology. Like its literary predecessor, the ‘marvellous voyage’, it has often set out to amaze and astound its readers. But if wonder is the authentic response to much science fiction, it is also a very wide spread mode of literary experience. There is, no doubt, something science-fictional in Miranda’s exclamation in The Tempest:

O, wonder!

How many goodly creatures are there here!

How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world that has such people in’t!”

Science fiction as romance,  in Science Fiction: Its Criticism and Teaching, by Patrick Parrinder. Published by Taylor & Francis, 1980, P52.