In season 1 of Russian Doll, Nadia Vulvokov (Natasha Lyonne) found herself trapped in a time loop, a similar concept explored in movies like Groundhog’s Day and Palm Springs. But season 2 ushers in an additional layer of complexity – one that manipulates Nadiya’s reality and leaves her trapped living amongst the past and present.
In a modern cinematic landscape filled with multiverses and time travel, there is definitely no shortage of mind-bending, reality-twisting movies and shows to indulge in. The OA, Donnie Darko, and more examine memories, grief, and identity through a sci-fi-esque lens. These – along with Russian Doll – only scratches the surfaces for the popular fantastical genre.
Aside from its cerebral visuals, Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film, Inception offers profound discourse on the nature of reality – if it can even be called that. Unlike Russian Doll, however, Dom Cobbs (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his team’s attempt at bending reality are intentional.
Audiences come to understand and even empathize with Dom’s growing confusion over which world he is truly existing in. It’s a guessing game of sorts, where the audience picks up context clues as the dream stealers continue their work. All the while, Dom and his team find themselves traversing deeper into the mysteries of his past. But remember: never tell a dreamer they’re dreaming (or reality could fall apart).
The OA (2016)
When Prairie Johnson (Brit Marling) reappears after being missing for seven, the only natural answer is to unravel the mystery behind where she’s been. This turns out to be more complicated than she – or a team of locals – can grasp as she reveals her life story.
Like many of Marling’s other projects, The OA looks at high-concept ideas involving parallel worlds, multiverses, and existence as a whole. Sure, a story of original angels and alternate dimensions might seem far-fetched. But the show’s subtle elements of sci-fi and fantasy make you believe that, perhaps, Prairie’s stories could be true – and that this reality is just one of many.
By some twisted fate – and birthdate – eight individuals around the world are seemingly linked to one another. From Nairobi to San Francisco to Mumbai – and all around the world – these strangers with nothing in common can suddenly hear each other’s thoughts and place themselves in their bodies. It even results in some pretty spectacular action sequences and musical montages.
Whether caught in a time loop or stuck between the past and present, Nadia cannot escape her circumstances without the support of Alan Zaveri (Charlie Bennet), who also finds himself in a similar fate of time and space. Sense8’s cluster of individuals mentally and emotionally connected to one another follow this same concept, and how their different experiences converge to unravel mysteries about themselves and greater forces.
Donnie Darko (2001)
Donnie Darko took some years to gain popularity, but it’s a bizarre story of a troubled teenager succumbing to crime and hallucinations has since become a cult classic. The movie begins with a plane engine falling Donnie Darko’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) bedroom, sending him into some other parallel world via portal.
At one point in the movie, Donnie Darko asks, “Every living thing follows a set path, and if you can see your path or channel then you can see into the future, right?” Like Nadia in Russian Doll, Donnie Darko struggles to perceive what is real from what his mind is telling him – both searching for their respective identities in a messed up world. Mix in alternate timelines and a troubled past, things can get confusing.
Nolan is known for creating particularly mind-bending movies that challenge the audience’s understanding of time in different ways (Interstellar, Inception, The Prestige). But Memento, in particular, uses non-linear storytelling as part of its plot. The Oscar-nominated film follows Leonard Shelby, whose retrograde amnesia makes forming new memories nearly impossible – but what is he even forgetting?
As he attempts to remember the events that lead up the final scenes, Leonard’s sense of control of his own story falters. The movie employs a clever multicolor technique in its scenes, which serve as two differing timelines of one man’s muddled reality. Memento is a tale of grief and identity. But when the protagonist of the film can’t even recognize this, the audience is left to piece together the events of this unreliable narrator.
Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)
Everything Everywhere All at Once is not only a box office success, it’s a philosophical exploration of the multiverse but with some very unconventional twists. When the fabric of reality seemingly breaks apart for one woman, Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh), the characters (and audiences) are left questioning their world, and it’s meaning.
That’s what makes Alpha Waymond’s line, “Every rejection, every disappointment has led you here to this moment,” that much more powerful. Because, like Nadia comes to understand in Russian Doll, Evelyn’s experiences all have meaning – regardless of timeline, dimension, or identity at the time. Isn’t that what the multiverse and this genre of movie is all about, after all?
Sometimes, animation is the best method to use when explaining difficult topics like reality, time, and space. Lurking behind the stunning visuals of Amazon Prime’s Undone is a deeper exploration of life, death, and grief, told through the lens of Alma Winograd-Diaz (Rosa Salazar). As the series progress, audiences are left to wonder: “where are we? Who are we? What is real?”
Unless you have the budget of a Marvel movie on your side, tools like rotoscoping can be used to depict a fantasy world. This is something that has worked for movies likeWaking Life, and it has the same dream-like effect in Undone.