What is reality? If that question garnered a Keanu Reeves-like "Whoa" from you instead of an eye roll, you're in the right place. Alternate-reality stories have become one of the most prominent subgenres of science fiction over the past century. This spilled over into Hollywood in the late 1990s, with one particular film in the genre (The Matrix) becoming one of the most influential action films in the history of cinema.
But the Wachowskis' classic is just the tip of the iceberg. Famous directors like John Carpenter and David Cronenberg have taken stabs at alternate-reality films, and movies like Dark City and The Congress deserve to be seen by many, many more people. If you're cool with spoilers, scroll on down and get ready to question your existence - and don't forget to vote up your favorite movies that, true to form, may or may not be real.
- Photo: New Line Cinema
Dark City is best known as the film that was The Matrix just before The Matrix came out and became a pop-culture sensation. Iconic film critic Roger Ebert famously preferred Dark City over The Matrix, giving the 1998 film a perfect review. Summarizing the plot of Dark City is somewhat difficult to do in a short space, but just imagine the main characters being controlled in a false reality created by aliens and you'll get the picture.
Director Alex Proyas, best known for The Crow and I, Robot, brings his signature dark sensibilities to the proceedings. If you can't get on board with a cast that features Rufus Sewell, Kiefer Sutherland, Jennifer Connelly, and William Hurt, then, well, it's unfortunate that you don't enjoy good times at the movies. It struggled to make its budget back at the box office and is often forgotten more than two decades after its release, but you need to give this one another chance. You won't regret it.Underrated?
- Photo: Tri-Star Pictures
When was the last time you sat down to watch Total Recall? And not the castrated 2012 remake - the 1990 original? Is it schlocky? Yes. Is it overly violent? Yes. Is it very much of its time? Yes. But good golly, Miss Molly... Total Recall is just a blast. It has Arnold Schwarzenegger squarely in his element. It has Sharon Stone vamping it up. It's got Michael Ironside doing the yelling and screaming he's known for.
And holding it all together is Paul Verhoeven's bold filmmaking and manic energy. Does it have much to do with the 1966 Philip K. Dick short story "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale"? Not really, but you'll be having so much fun you won't even care!Underrated?
- Photo: Columbia Pictures
Daniel F. Galouye's 1964 novel Simulacron-3 was clearly a groundbreaking work about computer-generated realities upon its release into the world. The thought of a computer having the processing power to simulate something on that level was absolute fantasy at the time (just ask your parents and grandparents about computers in the 1960s and see what they say). Simulacron-3 was adapted to television in 1973 (World on a Wire) and to the stage in 2012 (World of Wires), but in between those two versions of the story lies 1999's film adaptation The Thirteenth Floor.
With the tagline "Question Reality," a time-jumping plotline, and striking visuals, The Thirteenth Floor is a worthy entry into the late-'90s sci-fi canon. It lacks the social impact of The Matrix or a famous director like eXistenZ, but 1999 was clearly a good time to be a sci-fi fan.Underrated?
- Photo: Paramount Classics
Most moviegoers remember The Machinist as that movie Christian Bale lost 62 pounds for before getting all bulked up to play the Dark Knight in Batman Begins. And, well, yeah... seeing Bale weigh less than a stack of printer paper is extremely jarring, so it's easy to see why that aspect is so memorable. The man ate just 200 calories a day. Should we give him a medal? That is just insane.
Setting itself apart from many other "alternate reality" films, The Machinist's main character is losing his grip on reality thanks to - spoiler alert! - debilitating insomnia over guilt from a hit-and-run he committed, which claimed the life of a child. Not being able to sleep for an entire year has completely wrecked Trevor Reznik on a physical and mental level. It serves as a reminder that brain chemistry is highly significant to our individual realities and that, yes, sleep is extremely important.Underrated?