What are the best Alternate Reality Movies? Those whose storylines and characters exist in some other dimension than this one. When you, the viewer, are forced to ask: ‘is this happening for real now or is it in his/her head?’ One of the most accomplished in this vein is Christopher Nolan’s 2010 psychological thriller, Inception. Some, instead of another dimension, occur 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 for his friends and loved ones had he not existed. (Alternate timelines being a feature of the brilliant, early Twilight Zone episodes, too.) Nowadays, simulated ‘virtual reality’ is the excuse for some of the best voyages into that Alternate Reality, providing new solid fuel for the imagination (The Thirteenth Floor, or The Matrix, or Vanilla Sky).
Alternate Reality Movies often arrive as a sub-genre of Science Fiction, though not all AR films 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 arresting, 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. With Donnie Darko – uniquely – you’ll need the key to unlocking the hidden sub-plot, as it were. Otherwise, you’ll finish the film – and your popcorn – none the wiser. (Be reassured – there are dedicated websites out there which cater to this!) A recent case in point is Jonathan Nolan’s TV version of Westworld whose complex structure requires explanatory videos from YouTube!
However, despite how bizarre or illogical Alternate Reality Movies may seem, they (usually) make sense on some level. One of cinema’s geniuses here is the brilliantly, defiantly obscure David Lynch (of Twin Peaks fame) whose warped visions of everyday reality come from the time-space paradoxes of quantum physics. (And you thought Lynch was just having fun when, as in Lost Highway, a prisoner – banged up one day – can turn into someone else the next!) I’ll be looking at all of the above-mentioned movies in this series, but for now, without further delay, I present the first in my list of favourite, unmissable Alternate Reality movies.
1. Franklyn (2008, dir: Gerald McMorrow) 9/10
This underrated, visually extravagant, gem from first time director McMorrow was described on Wikipedia as a ‘science fantasy’; I must disagree with the ‘science’ part, though. Franklyn (the name is never explained) is, rather, a portrait of despair, of alienation, of broken hearts, and how to cope (i.e. through personal fantasies). This is all filtered through its main character, Emilia, played by Eva Green, whose tousled look anticipates her Gothic clairvoyant in Penny Dreadful. Here, Green is a disaffected film student who creates a series of video ‘suicides’ – all in the name of art, you understand. (Before performing these risky acts she dials the emergency services, who may or may not succeed in rescuing her.)
Overlapping Emilia’s story are those of Milo (Sam Riley) a young thirty-something whose recent engagement has been called off, and one Jonathan Preest, (Ryan Phillippe) a masked ‘hero’ seeking out a child molester among the urban deprivation of Meanwhile City, with its steam-punk fashions and brutal, religious authorities . ‘Preest’ is though, as we can see, a fantasy figure, along with the City’s other denizens (straight out of Sin City or V for Vendetta). But we also meet them as real people. That is, in our own 3D reality of time and space. Or do we?
For example, veteran Brit actor Bernard Hill is an official at the Ministry in Meanwhile City, whereas in the real world he appears as Peter Esser, a bereft churchwarden 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’ equivalent of Preest).
If this isn’t complex enough, there is 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 has also been traumatised, here by some unmentioned abusive act (by her now absent father). These ‘real world’ segments of the film, laden with human emotions, are a counterweight to the more obvious fictional sequences – like the nocturnal, graphic-novel that is Meanwhile City. Or are they?
So far, absolutely nothing is clear about this tortuously complex and multi-layered film. But what unites David/Preest, Esser, Milo and Emilia is that they’ve all lost something – a sister, a daughter, a love interest and, in Emilia’s case, childhood innocence. Nevertheless, one watches baffled for the first hour, aware that the characters are all related in some meaningful way – but how? What we first need to know is: from whose point of view are we seeing all of this? In fact, the separate parts do come together at the end, by which time we’ve been fed enough clues.
Warning – spoilers appear from here! At the dénouement, Milos and ‘Sally’ are in a restaurant one evening. Someone else is there, too: Peter Esser. Across the road, David has forced his way into Emilia’s flat, and intends shooting his father through an open window. More clues follow: David spies Emilia’s drawings, which clearly resemble the Ministry in Meanwhile City. (Why?) Then ‘Sally’ looks at Milo and – apropos of nothing – asks: ‘Can’t you feel it? It’s nearly time.’ Over the road, Emilia has threatened to blow herself and David up. It’s nearly time. Before she exits, tossing a 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 building erupts in flames with David still in it, as Emilia runs into the street where she finds Miles, injured from the gunshot. And it’s not for nothing that an ambulance and its driver called to the ‘accident’ have since mysteriously vanished. The imagination moves fast, right? When the camera pans upwards and we see lingering shots of Gothic spires and dingy rooftops we realise we’ve seen them before. We’re in Meanwhile City, and we’re seeing things – have been seeing things, everything – from Emilia’s point of view. The explosion seems to be the last of Emilia’s suicide ‘attempts’.
As one of the more obscure Alternate Reality Movies, Franklyn doesn’t yield its mysteries easily. (This is as much down to the direction as it is the script – both ably handled by McMorrow.) You have to be ready for that final clue, but it’s the Big Reveal. The entire narrative can be viewed as Emilia’s reaction to being abused, with its dark, twisted imagery, the final forced-entry of David (and Preest’s hunt for a child molester) and the innocence she wants back (Sally and Milo’s fantasy romance). Seen this way, Franklyn is about enforced growing up. About leaving childhood behind.
Like the best personal relationships, Franklyn demands – and rewards – your attention and understanding. It divides the critics into two camps – one which likes it for its refusal to signpost any meaning, for its boldness and uniqueness; the other which dismisses it as phoney ‘art house pretension’. But this is because, like any genuine mystery, you either get it 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!
Main image: attribution – Thomas Wolf, www.foto-tw.de
Franklyn poster (fair usage) sourced from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Franklyn_poster.jpg
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