This was the tagline promoting last week’s episode of Eureka: “Everything you know is wrong.” The line was never spoken in any episode, but instead one character does say, “Things aren’t what they seem.” Either way, it touches on the question of how we know what we experience as reality is the truth. Are we living in a dream or an illusion or a virtual environment? How do we know the difference?
I love fiction which explores this enigma. [I’m going to talk about revealed themes from specific examples which would be considered spoilers, but the titles are old enough that I don’t care.] Movies like “Vanilla Sky” and “The Matrix” are very clearly saying that there could be a technology in our future which will trick us into thinking we are in one reality which is all inside our minds while our bodies lie dormant or are fed artificial stimuli. The beginning of Eureka’s fifth season took this approach.
On the other hand, a movie like “Jacob’s Ladder” explores how the mind can create its own inner world, using the mechanism of dreams taken to an extreme in the final hours of life. More recently, “Inception” used technology to enhance the dream world. I would love to create or find an exhaustive list of every movie ever made which blurred the line between waking and dreams. (There are probably even more books out there, but I am partial to movies.)
In a lot of these examples, a character slowly begins to feel that something isn’t quite right, but does not question the entire fabric of reality. It takes the appearance of a new character to point out that the discrepancies are a symptom that his whole world is an illusion. In “Vanilla Sky” this comes in the form of Tech Support, someone from the outside world who materializes within the client’s constructed reality. In “Inception” there is a scene in which the target is told he is dreaming by the leader of the team who induced the dream in the first place. In “The Matrix” it is Morpheus who explains to Neo why he’s had a nagging suspicion that there was something more beyond what he experienced as his reality.
I find myself wanting to rewatch these movies repeatedly. I am intrigued by how our innate sense of reality is portrayed, what signs are used to indicate that the world is somehow “wrong” and what it takes to tip the character’s understanding. I am drawn to this concept of unreality, illusion, lucid dreaming, and the virtual world.
I will revisit these themes in future posts. Right now, I need to go rewatch The Thirteenth Floor — feel free to comment with more recommendations.