Simulated Realities on Film

This post contains spoilers for recent episodes of WandaVision.

Toward the end of the third episode of WandaVision, Marvel’s incendiary new television series, something strange happens.

Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) gives birth to two beautiful yet rapidly growing baby boys, and she and her neighbor Geraldine (Teyonah Parris) lean over the crib and coo and quail and admire the newborn twins. “I’m a twin,” Wanda smiles. “I had a brother. His name was…Pietro.” As Wanda starts to sing an old Romani lullaby, Geraldine attempts to break the ‘60s sitcom spell cast over Wanda’s suburban sanctimonious society. “He was killed by Ultron, wasn’t he?” Caught off guard, a single tear strokes Wanda’s cheek. “What did you say?” The Scarlet Witch blinks away her sorrow. Geraldine tires to play off her statement as casual conversation, but the damage is done, her cover blown. Bell-bottoms zigzag across the sunken living room carpet as she offers to take a shift rocking the babies, but Wanda’s grown privy to the S.W.O.R.D. agent in the room. She looks at the outsider with eyes of fire. Her brows furrow. She asks Geraldine to leave.

Suddenly, Paul Bettany’s tweed covered string bean android Vision bursts through the front door, following an equally odd chat with the neighbors outside. “Wanda, where’s Geraldine?” he exhales, eyes bolting around the room like hot white lightning. Wanda’s new friend is inexplicably stricken from the set. It’s as if she were never even there. “She had to leave,” Wanda stares coolly straight ahead. “She had to rush straight home”. Cut to the middle of an empty grassy field in the dark, where a bewildered Geraldine shoots out of the sky, catapulted out of an invisible force field by some unseen energy where she lands gasping for air on the ground. A slew of military vehicles pile around her like cars at a drive-in, shining lights down from helicopters, donning hazmat suits, radioing reports back to base. A fallen angel stationed safely back on earth.

It might come off like a curious way to move the plot forward, or a monastic devotion to getting the message out about staying in your own lane. Yet, this is not the only recent media to spark a discussion about simulated realities. On Friday, Rodney Ascher’s A Glitch in the Matrix hit VOD services everywhere. Deliriously alive and wholly intriguing, the latest documentary from the Room 237 director centers around Philip K. Dick’s 1977 speech about how we’re all actually living inside a computer generated program, then seeks to show evidence from various volunteers supporting the argument. Stacked up against our current surreal reality wherein many of us haven’t left our homes or seen our friends or family for the better part of a year as a result of a global pandemic that’s killing thousands every day, it’s hard not to at least consider the idea that this is all made up and none of us are actually real.

Social media platforms surged with reactions to Ascher’s controversial conversation starter. Some wonder if the filmmaker has gone too far, spouting the rhetoric of insincere sycophants when it all boils down to utter nonsense. Others regard the issue with genuine concern, hinting at the inevitable nihilism that rears its ugly head in the absence of fate and meaning. The question viewers should be asking, however, is why two filmmakers from completely different sides of the spectrum could release media in the same year, united by the specific thread of simulated realities.

The notion that humans are living in an artificial reality constructed by outside forces was popularized in 1999 by the Lana and Lilly Wachowski-directed cerebral thriller The Matrix, but the concept existed long before then. In The Allegory of Plato’s Cave, human beings have lived in an underground den their entire lives, chained and facing a blank wall. The prisoners see shadows cast on the wall ahead of them by the roaring fire behind them, and as they watch the figures and various shapes dance across the wall, they converse amongst themselves, guessing at the murky objects displayed and naming them and accepting such authenticity. But what if one of the prisoners were freed from the cave? He would reluctantly walk outside, eyes aching at the first sight of the sun. At first, the pain would seem too much to bear, but after he had grown accustomed to his new surroundings and accepted this new reality, the journey back into the cave would be a difficult return, as adjusting to a smaller, more contained existence is a difficult presumption after a person has seen the bigger picture.

They Live, John Carpenter’s wicked commentary on consumerism, burns itself into the brain by way of bold narrative and aesthetic choices. Led by 1980s wrestler Roddy Piper, the film follows a drifter named Nada around a city as he discovers a special pair of sunglasses that allow him to see subliminal messages hidden in advertisements and government. Meant to keep the population subdued, they also let him see the aliens who walk among us, the ones disguised in human exterior, plotting world domination, one stealthy “obey” sign at a time.

About a year before The Matrix melted minds, Alex Proyas dared to suggest we are living in a fabricated reality. In Dark City, it’s always nighttime. John Murdoch’s (Rufus Sewell) paranoia regarding a strange recollection of a wife and a past not his own is exacerbated once he witnesses the entire town inexplicably fall asleep at the exact same time one dreary evening while he remains wired. He begins to question his entire actuality. Why is it so hard to leave the area? When was the last time he saw the sun? What pale, ominous creatures stalk his nightly strolls, and what are they changing around when everyone is dreaming?

Anchored by Jim Carrey’s justifiably erratic yet relatable performance, Peter Weir’s eerily prophetic 1998 entry The Truman Show is the rare kind of existential art that not only taps into the public’s collective conscious, but also provides an intimate look at god and religion in a shockingly safe and sterile manner. Centered around Carrey’s amenable insurance salesman, the story follows the first baby ever bought by a corporation as he grows up in a world where his whole life is actually a reality television show. A naturally curious person, storms were brewed and lives were supposedly lost in order to maintain the façade of Truman Burbank’s little snow globe world. Ever since his father “died” at sea, Truman can’t go near any large body of water. His conquistador dreams dashed by counterfeit fate. When the great and powerful showrunner is revealed, and Truman grows privy to the cameras and the stages and the extras and the characters cast, he must make the decision between burying his head in the man-made sand or finding the exit door and staring back at a sun that isn’t just another spotlight.

Channel Zero’s second season simply titled No End House is a modern day suburban play on simulated realities that would make Rod Sterling proud. Saint Maud straddles the thin line between a low key satire on religious devotion and a dark allegory about the way that loneliness and trauma play into realities that people construct for themselves. The Blazing World is a fascinating peek through the portal into the physical and metaphysical dimensions, and Censor is a deeply sad fever dream about the stories people create to cope in the guise of a throwback to the 1980s Video Nasty phenomenon in the United Kingdom. 

Even the National Football League is starting to look like virtual reality, as FOX used this past season as a guinea pig for shooting games with a mirrorless Sony a7R IV on a handheld gimbal in order to manifest more immersive effects. The result is a sporting event that looks less like a football game and more like a photo realistic video game, almost as if the players we know to be real are merely 3D simulations in a computer generated biosphere.

In some of the past year’s best media, the tension between the social reality we cannot bear to face and what we retreat into is sizzling and bubbling and boiling over. It shouldn’t be lost on anyone that our former commander-in-chief was the star of a reality television show. The grief over our lost loved ones, the terror of trying to survive a deadly global pandemic, the upending of our normal everyday lives as we know it, being held hostage by a lunatic president who golfs another 18 holes while cremation smog clouds the skies and the citizens do their best to bunker down and wait out the seemingly end times. The space inside our quarantined houses can hold many mysteries, but some are of our own making.

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