The Top Ten Alternate Reality Movies (Part One): James Lynn Page

The Top Ten Alternate Reality Movies (Part One): James Lynn Page

What are the best Alternate Reality Movies? There’s a whole raft of movies whose protagonists exist on some other dimension than this one. You know the kind of thing: when that puzzling scene arrives on screen and you say, ‘is this happening for real now or is it in his/her head?’ One of the most successful (and complex) in this vein is Christopher Nolan’s psychological thriller Inception from 2010. Some, instead of the action taking place in another dimension of space, occur in a different dimension of time, such as when Jimmy Stewart meets the amateur guardian angel in It’s A Wonderful Life, showing how life would have been for his neighbours and loved ones had he not existed. (Visiting different 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 and impressive, 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. But with Donnie Darko  – uniquely – you need to know the key to what’s actually happening with the plot, or you’ll most likely never understand it! (Be reassured – there are dedicated websites out there which cater to this!)

But, like all Alternate Reality Movies, once you ‘get’ that other dimension, everything starts to fit together. Despite how outwardly weird these movies may seem, they (usually) makes sense on some level. On other occasions, it’s still just as baffling, and whichever way you twist it, you finish the film – and your popcorn – none the wiser. One of cinema’s presiding geniuses here is the brilliantly and defiantly obscure David Lynch (of Twin Peaks fame.) 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  Franklyn poster

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 one copes with these things (i.e. by spinning personal fantasies). This is all filtered through its main character, Emilia, played by the lovely Eva Green, whose tousled look anticipates her Gothic clairvoyant in Penny Dreadful. Here, Green is a disaffected film student whose main project is a series of video ‘suicides’ – all in the name of art, you understand. (Before performing these risky acts of self-harm 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 romantic 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 (that could be 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 complicated enough, I must also mention 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. We can see that what unites David/Preest, Essser, 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? Will these disparate strands converge at the end, and reveal the answer? What we first need to know is: from whose point of view are we seeing all of this? In fact, the parts do come together at the end, by which time we’ve been fed enough clues to work things out.

Warning – spoilers appear from here! At the climax, Milos and ‘Sally’ sit in a restaurant on a rain-soaked night in urban London. Someone else is there, too: Peter Esser. Across the road is Emilia’s gloomy flat, and David – equipped with a rifle – has forced his way in, intending to shoot his father through an open window. More clues follow: David spies Emilia’s drawings, which resemble the Ministry in Meanwhile City. At one point, Sally looks at Milo and mysteriously asks: ‘Can’t you feel it? It’s nearly time.’ Over the road, Emilia has threatened to blow herself and David up. Here, Emilia’s suicide fantasies very nearly become real. 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. It’s not for nothing that an ambulance and its driver called to the ‘accident’ have since  mysteriously vanished. The imagination moves so quickly. 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 – from Emilia’s point of view.

You have to look hard for this clue. Franklyn is a film that doesn’t yield its mysteries easily, which is as much down to the direction as it is the script – both ably handled by McMorrow. Like the best personal relationships, Franklyn demands your time, attention and understanding. (And rewards them, too!) It divides the critics into two camps – one which likes it for its refusal to signpost any inner 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 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,

Franklyn poster (fair usage) sourced from:

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