22 Movies that Question Reality

Edit: this post is currently up to 31 “false reality” movies + 2 TV shows. Updates follow the original post.

Movies can make us question reality by prompting these types of questions:

  • What is real? Are we real? Is this life real?
  • What is a simulation or a lie being told to us?
  • How do we know? What evidence might help?

In this blog post I’ve attempted to categorize the following mind-bending movies into conflict narratives where these questions have been asked in one way or another. I don’t attempt to answer the questions – I’ll leave that to you. Many of these movies could fit into more than one conflict narrative type, but I’ve chosen to choose one that I felt was the best fit. If you have another movie you’d like to add or have a differing opinion, please let me know in the comments below.

Every Facet of Your Life is a Lie (Man vs. Society) #Escape

The Truman Show

  • The Truman Show – In this movie, Jim Carrey’s character lives inside a television show without knowing it. Everything and every person around him is either fake or a paid actor. It’s not until he reaches middle age that he starts to wonder if things aren’t exactly as they seem. This movie explores the process a man goes through when he discovers that his world is a lie and how he must break out.
  • THX 1138 – One of George Lucas’ first films, this movie portrays a man who is forced to live the status quo for reasons he doesn’t understand. In his heart he knows there is more to this life than what he is being allowed to believe. While he doesn’t know what is on the ‘other side’ he begins to run and starts the process of escaping the world in which he lives (underground) and only once outside is redeemed.
  • 1984 – A movie where the real truth is never known and is always changing, it revolves around a man in a community dominated by lies and an overbearing government. All information is controlled, propaganda runs rampant, personal lives are controlled, and privacy is non-existant. The central character temporarily breaks free only to be recaptured and re-assimilated into the system.

You’re Being Lied to or Controlled by a Computer (Man vs. Machine) #Trust

2001 A Space Odyssey

  • 2001: A Space Odyssey – HAL 9000 is a computer program designed to help run a space ship on a mission to Jupiter – or so Dave thinks. What Dave comes to find out – after being locked out of the spaceship by HAL 9000 – is that the mission is actually quite different (just like the android’s secret mission in the movie, Alien). Dave overcomes the computer by disabling it’s memory banks, but in the end is still consumed by the primary mission HAL 9000 was trying to protect – the monolith.
  • Wall-E – At the end of this movie you discover that the main computer on the space ship holding all of the humans has been lying to the humans in order to stay in control of them. What’s the lesson here? Don’t let computer programs run your space ships! The humans eventually take control and go home.
  • The Matrix – Mr. Anderson (Neo) is always looking for something, but he doesn’t know what he’s looking for. When he gets a message to “follow the white rabbit” and decides to “see how deep the rabbit hole goes” he discovers that he has not only been living in a simulated reality his whole life, but that he’s also the key to redeeming the rest of the human race enslaved by a computer program.
  • Thirteenth Floor – Have you ever drove in a single direction for as far as you could go just to see what happens? How do you actually know the world is round unless you test it? In this movie, the characters create a simulation and in doing so discover that they themselves are living inside a simulation. What do you do with that information when you discover everything you know isn’t real?
  • The Village (2004) – “The Village” is not actually set in the 1800s. The inhabitants live in a wildlife preserve in modern times and that the government is bribed not to fly planes over the area so that the children who were born there will still believe in the group’s olde-tymie lifestyle and live as the “elders” want them to. As Ed said in the comments, “It’s the best example of Plato’s cave.”

You’re Not Who You Think You Are (Man vs. Himself) #Memory

Oblivion

  • Oblivion – This movie got a lot of flack for being a Frankenstein of previous movies like Moon and Wall-E, but I’ve included it because I think it underlines one of the central themes here and one I think is most popular (either among movie-makers or movie-goers) in that you may not be who you think you are – but you can still become the person you want to be – as long as you break social norms.
  • Moon – Imagine you’re a miner on another planet and your shift is almost up – you’ll soon be able to go home, but you start to get sick and so instead of doing your normal, daily routine, you change something and in the process you discover that you weren’t going home at all. Instead you were going to be replaced – by someone who looks just like you. You are not who you think you are. Mind blown.
  • Blade Runner – In this movie Harrison Ford is a ‘police officer’ of sorts who’s primary role is to find and arrest androids living in the public. The problem is that some of the androids he’s chasing after don’t even know they are really a robot. He’s developed a way to get them to realize they aren’t “real”, but in the process begins to question his own reality – and in this way discovers his own truth.
  • Total Recall – You have the perfect life, the perfect job, and the perfect wife, but something doesn’t seem quite right. You find yourself seeking an adventure…on Mars! You find a way that you can ‘remember’ going to Mars without actually going (much cheaper), but this catapults you into a world where everything you thought you knew was a lie and you find yourself on your way to Mars, for real.
  • Memento – In this movie, the main character can’t remember short-term memories and his last long-term memories were of his wife getting murdered right in front of him. He is continually searching for the man who murdered his wife and keeps notes on his progress by tatooing clues on his body. The only problem is that he can’t remember who he is or what he’s doing, which is very confusing to him.
  • A Scanner Darkly – Who is the good guys and who are the bad guys? How far will you go to find out? What if you can’t remember at the end from when you started? A Scanner Darkly is where Memento meets The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as a police officer goes undercover to break a drug ring, losing his identity and mind in the process. Who is a man who has lost his own memory?
  • Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – In this movie Jim Carrey plays a man so upset with his girlfriend that he hires a man to erase every memory of her from his mind. In the process we get to travel through all of the memories as they are erased – all the while experiencing new memories with the very woman he was trying to erase. This movie explores the role of memory with self and destiny.
  • The Bourne Identity – Like Total Recall, this movie involves a man trying to reconstruct his past and discovering skills and connections he didn’t know he had. In the end, as in Total Recall, Jason Bourne decides to become a different man than the one he used to be. The erasing of his memory has allowed him to become a different person – so again – who is a man without his memory? What is memory?
  • The Number 23 – In a moment of serendipity, the main character discovers a book in a small book store written by him – that he didn’t remember writing. You can imagine how this would be disconcerting, but what if you discovered a code in the book that re-opened up a mental disorder you had forgotten you had and helped you discover a murder you forgot you committed? Yeah, weird.

I sometimes have dreams for years that I don’t realize aren’t true until, by chance, I happen to think of that place during the day. In a single moment years of memories are vaporized and my idea of what is real or not is shattered. I decided to write this section to help bridge the previous memory section with this next section on place because I think dreams (or memories of dreams) are a good example of both.

You’re Not Where You Think You Are (Man vs. Nature) #Information

Inception

  • Inception – If you’ve ever dreamed you may have noticed how the dream can seem longer than the actual amount of time it takes to dream it. And if you’ve ever had a lucid dream you may have noticed that there are certain things you can control in your dream. This movie takes those two concepts to the extreme, but the question remains: how do you know when you’re still dreaming or what is real?
  • Pandorum – You wake up in a spaceship and have no idea how you got there. When you begin to explore the ship you discover there are some skills you remember having, but don’t recall specifics. Eventually you discover you are on a ship headed to another planet, but you have no idea where you are. If only you knew where you actually were – if only you had the information you needed to escape.
  • Vanilla Sky – In a form of memory erasure, one of Tom Cruise’s character’s girlfriends decides to end both of their lives in a car wreck. Fortunately (?) Tom Cruise’s character survives, but his face is disfigured and he wakes up in a world alone with him and his therapist. Imagine how he feels when he realizes that he’s not actually alive, but has opted into a virtual reality which he’s forgotten to escape.
  • Being John Malkovich – Where is a man’s thoughts? Do they live inside his head? What happens if someone else gets inside your head? Who are you if someone else is controlling your body? In this movie a puppeteer finds a strange tunnel behind a filing cabinet in an office that allows him to control John Malkovich’s body. Where is this man when he is in the mind of another man? Who is he?

He’s Not Who You Think He Is (Man vs. Man) #Deception

The Prestige

  • The Prestige – There is a term called “the long con” which involves a prolonged act used to deceive another person or group for your own gain. In this movie there is a long con that is not revealed until the end of the movie and a healthy dose of irony in it’s revelation, which I won’t cover here. The man you thought you knew may not be the man you thought at all – and who are you when you’re twice?
  • SALT – Another long con, this one involving children of ambassadors raised in a special school in order to be distributed in key locations in the government to be activated at the appropriate time. However, even the most intricate of plans and training can be overcome by the person you choose to be today. Like Jason Bourne, this central character decides to be the person she is now, not who she was.

Central Themes of These 22 Movies

You may notice that all of these movies follow a central theme: that there is a feeling like something isn’t right, that there is something else out there, and that you must break the social norms to escape to that other place – and once you do you are either redeemed or crucified for it. There is also a theme of memory loss or the questioning of the memories we do have. As humans we don’t always trust the memories we have and when those memories are gone, who are we? Are we just a accumulation of memories or something else?

You may notice that Jim Carrey appears more than once as an actor (The Truman Show, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and The Number 23) and that the author Philip K. Dick‘s movies (Blade Runner, Total Recall, and A Scanner Darkly) all share similar themes.  I didn’t know this, but apparently The Truman Show is a Philip K. Dick short story. One more connection: Matt Damon from The Bourne Identity also played in a Philip K. Dick movie called The Adjustment Bureau. It’s like a game of 6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon.

By the way, all of the movie links above to Amazon are affiliate links. I make a small percentage of money if you buy something from Amazon through those links. It doesn’t cost you anything extra and it helps support the writing of this site. Thanks for reading!

Updates

Update 8/29/2013:

A friend recently pointed me to Dark City, which, theologian Gerard Loughlin interprets as a retelling of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. “For Loughlin, the city inhabitants are prisoners who do not realize they are in a prison. John Murdoch’s escape from the prison parallels the escape from the cave in the allegory.” This allegory is very similar to the movie, THX 1138, where Robert Duvall literally climbs up out of the ‘cave’. I haven’t seen Dark City, but when they realize they aren’t where they think they are, that makes me think it’s a Man vs. Nature film.

Update 9/18/2013:

I was listening to Tropical MBA Podcast episode 24 which played David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech to Kenyon College, of which much was relevant to this topic. “A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded…[Education] has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: ‘This is water.’ ‘This is water.’ It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out.” David killed himself on his back porch in September of 2008, just over 3 years after making this speech, “It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.”

Update 7/8/2014:

I was listening to Tim Ferriss’ podcast with Jason Silva who listed his top, “False Reality [movies] that makes you question your reality”. The one I hadn’t heard of before was Enemy starring Jake Gyllenhaal:

  • Inception
  • The Matrix
  • The Truman Show
  • Existenze
  • Vanilla Sky
  • Memento
  • Enemy – A man seeks out his exact look-alike after spotting him in a movie.

Jason Silva is a Venezuelan-American television personality, filmmaker, and performance philosopher who currently host’s National Geographic’s Brain Games.

Update 10/9/2014:

The Man Who Knew Too Little

Reverse-Reality Movies, where everything is a game:

  • The Man Who Knew Too Little (1997)
  • The Game (1997)

“How much do you trust your own memory?” Movies:

  • A Beautiful Mind (2001)
  • The Moment (2013)
  • The Sixth Sense (1999)

“Where do you think you are?” Movies:

  • The Signal (2014)

Does the Bible hint at some of these themes? James 4:14 says: “You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away.” What is real?. Paul hints that the only thing that is “real” is the things we can’t see. 2 Corinthians 4:18 says, “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

TV Shows

  • SouthparkGrounded Vindaloop – the animated characters in the show realize they are all stuck inside an Oculus Rift virtual reality (VR) world and need help desk support (ala Vanilla Sky) to get out. Once out, we realize they are all actually real boys.
  • ScrubsMy Screw Up –  Dr. Cox spends the episode preparing for his son’s birthday with his brother, Ben. Only at the end of the episode is it revealed that Ben is dead and Dr. Cox has been instead preparing for his funeral, unbeknownst to him.

Quotes and YouTube Videos

From the Cafe scene in Inception, “Where are you right now?”

From Scrub’s “My Screw Up”, “Where do you think we are?”

Comment (12)

  • joe| February 11, 2015

    You miss Virtual Nightmare (2000).

  • joe| February 13, 2015

    There are many TV episodes.

    Example:

    Star Trek – Voyager S02E03 – Projections (1995)

    • Erich Stauffer| February 13, 2015

      That’s great! Can you think of any others?

      • joe| February 13, 2015

        The first work I known on this subject is
        The Futurological Congress (1971) a novel by Stanisław Lem.
        — a world where everyone takes hallucinogenic drugs, and hallucinations have replaced reality.

      • joe| February 13, 2015

        The Star Trek Next Generation and Star Trek Voyager series have several episodes that question reality but Voyager S02E03 is the best.

        There are others.
        Example:
        Hammer House of Horror S01E03 Rude Awakening (1980)
        A real estate broker finds himself having dreams that seem to be incredibly real. They are so real, in fact, that he begins to wonder which is the dream and which is reality.

      • joe| February 14, 2015

        Most of the works deal with only one alternate reality.

        This usually comes with time travel and parallel universes.

        For example:
        Sliders (1995) TV Series
        Ubik (1969) novel by Philip K. Dick

        • Erich Stauffer| February 14, 2015

          I watched Sliders as a kid and really liked it.

          What blows my mind about Philip K. Dick’s “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale”/Total Recall for example is as the viewer we really don’t know whether the spy/revolution/Mars stuff that happens after the botched memory implant is real or if he’s really just stuck in a catatonic state having a delusion for the rest of the movie.

          I once talked with Philip K. Dick’s ‘head’ at WIRED NextFest in Chicago in 2005 before it was lost on an airplane that same year.* I’ll see if I can find the video. I think I have it on DVD somewhere. I can’t seem to find it on any of my YouTube Channel.

          Speaking of YouTube and other realities, have you seen the 1977 Philip K. Dick speech at the Metz Sci-Fi Convention in France?** He talks about how we may be living in a simulation and that one way we may know is when something changes, like de ja vu.

          Philip K. Dick believed that an ancient satellite called The Black Rock was communicating with him and it helped him write his stories. Apparently NASA has images of the satellite, but a lot of people say it never existed. Who knows. Interesting stuff though.

          *http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/books/2012/06/philip_k_dick_robot_an_android_head_of_the_science_fiction_author_is_lost_forever_.html

          **https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eZltkhD-Zxo

          • joe| February 14, 2015

            > “we may be living in a simulation”

            The book “Uniorder: Build Yourself Paradise” shows how our reality is about to change.
            Now we are living in a dogfight reality.
            Soon we will be in a Galactic Community reality.

            There is a torrent with reality related movies and books:
            In http://kickass.to/ search “the reality in question”

      • joe| February 14, 2015

        Awake (2012) TV Seriess
        After a car accident takes the life of a family member, a police detective lives two alternating parallel lives, one with his wife and one with his son. Is one of his “realities” merely a dream?

  • Ed| March 21, 2015

    You’re missin The Village (2004). It’s the best example of plato’s cave.

    • Erich Stauffer| March 23, 2015

      Ed, you’re absolutely right. I’m adding it now. Thanks!

  • Sandy| May 18, 2017

    The Others 2001