Yesterday, we looked at six characters who seemingly managed to escape virtual prisons. Now, we'll make it an even dozen as we examine another sextet of science fiction heroes that may or may not still be stuck inside their own minds. Spoilers!
1. John Anderton, Minority Report
In the year 2054, John Anderton is the chief of Washington DC's elite precrime unit, which uses three psychics to predict when murders will occur and thus prevent them. Arrested for a murder he actually did sort of commit (which is way rarer than it sounds), Anderton is placed in suspended animation in the Precrime holding cells. The case seemingly closed, his longtime mentor Lamar Burgess goes to comfort Anderton's estranged wife Lara, but accidentally lets slip a crucial detail that suggests he knows far more than he is letting on.
Lara, finally believing John's claims of a deeper conspiracy, goes to free him from his cell. It's then full speed ahead to the film's conclusion, where Anderton confronts Burgess and places him in a no-win situation, where the only way to save his beloved Precrime will mean destroying it forever. Burgess kills himself rather than face such a prospect, and Precrime reforms itself, setting free everyone it was holding captive. But did Anderton ever actually get released from his cell, or was this all just a fantasy he created?
The Case For:
Somewhat unusually for a project rooted in a Philip K. Dick short story, Minority Report isn't particularly interested in the nature of reality, at least not in the way we're talking about here. Instead, most of the film concerns itself with debating predetermination versus free will, which is a different philosophical question from whether or not the events we experience are real. As such, it doesn't really make much thematic sense, and there's only the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence to suggest Anderton fantasized the whole thing.
Besides, this is Steven Spielberg we're talking about, not David Cronenberg (but more on him in a little bit). It just isn't really his style to reject the reality of his own films. If anything, Spielberg's fantasy and science fiction oeuvre is defined by accepting everything as real, no matter how preposterous.
The Case Against:
Still, that really is an impossibly easy ending. After spending a solid ninety minutes doing nothing but running and hiding from the implacable Precrime officers, the escaped John Anderton has no trouble leaving their facility or breaking into the impressively ritzy social event Burgess is at. Everything just falls into place a bit too neatly, considering pretty much nothing came easy for the first two-thirds of the film. Perhaps the end of Minority Report is a bit like the end of Adaptation - its sheer implausibility is the biggest clue that it isn't exactly happening the way you see it.
Chances That It Really Happened:
90%. A lot of recent Spielberg films have had somewhat weak conclusions, including Munich, War of the Worlds, and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and you don't see anybody claiming those endings didn't happen. Well, plenty of people prefer to believe Kingdom of the Crystal Skull never happened at all, but that's a different issue.
2. Bender, Futurama
In the episode "Obsoletely Fabulous", Bender is sent back to the factory to receive an upgrade that will make him compatible with the new Robot 1-X. Unwilling to go through the painful, personality-altering upgrade, Bender goes on the run, eventually winding up on an island full of obsolete robots. Forsaking his own technological nature, Bender downgrades himself, replacing his metal parts with wood.
After launching an attack on civilization, Bender and his primitive cohorts end up at the Planet Express building, where they manage to do far more harm than even Bender really intended. All of his friends trapped in a raging inferno, a now useless Bender is forced to call upon the aid of Robot 1-X, finally making him realize the new robot has his uses. At that point, he snaps back to the factory, where he is informed the whole thing was just a hallucination, his robotic mind's way of coming to terms with and accepting Robot 1-X. This forces Bender to ask the philosophical question:
If that stuff wasn't real, how can I be sure anything is real? Is it not possible, nay probable, that my whole life is just a product of my or someone else's imagination?
It's a valid question - is any of Futurama real?
The Case For:
Absolutely, yes, all of it is real. By which I of course mean no, none of it is. Much as I'm sure it pains all of us to admit it, Futurama is just a TV show. So, technically speaking, I suppose none of it is actually real. But that's not what we're dealing with here. Much as Bender's line represents a great bit of meta humor, it isn't really meant to call into question whether the "actual" events of Futurama are any less real than any other TV show in the same way that, say, the "Normal Again" episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer did. Am I the only one who's horribly confused by all of this? If nothing else, I need to find some more synonyms for "real."
The Case Against:
The end of the episode finds Bender walking back into the slums of New New York City, which he chooses to see as a beautiful meadow full of friendly woodland creatures. Beyond the fact that that sort of seems like an odd choice for Bender's perfect world, Bender's newfound belief that "reality is what you make of it" really does suggest that, on some metaphysical level, Futurama is all just some idle fantasy.
Chances That Futurama Really Happened:
90%. In the end, you've got to trust in the robot technician's brusque response to Bender's philosophical query: "No, get out. Next!" A man that coolly competent probably has a pretty good handle on the ways of the universe. Now, as to whether Leela ever really recovered from the space bee sting, well...that's another matter entirely.
3. Ed Straker, UFO
In, "Mindbender", one of the best episodes of this British cult classic about an elite but underfunded paramilitary force fighting mysterious aliens (which I've already waxed lyrical about in a previous post), SHADO recovers a bizarre artifact from the surface of the Moon. All those who touch it experience ultra-realistic hallucinations. After two men are killed because they started shooting at fellow SHADO personnel, thinking they were the enemy, Commander Ed Straker takes possession of the strange object.
It isn't long before Straker hallucinates as well, as a heated argument with General Henderson is interrupted with a director yelling, "Cut!" Utterly confused, Straker finds himself on a television set filming a TV show that looks an awful lot like UFO. He wanders around the studio, stumbling into a theater showing previously shot footage. Straker watches in horror as he sees some of the most traumatic moments of his life - all moments previously shown in the series itself - up on the screen as mere entertainment.
Unable to cope with this strange new world, Straker rushes back to his office set and desperately tries to make it return to normal. To his great relief, everything finally snaps back to normal, and he is once again Commander Ed Straker. But still...did he actually stumble upon reality, however briefly?
The Case For:
This is the same fundamental problem we faced when grappling with Futurama. What's the difference between a show acknowledging the fact that it's a TV show and a show suggesting everything we see is an illusion? I guess it's all a matter of degree, and the more and more elements from real life the show draws upon, the harder it is to dismiss the idea that the TV show is really just a TV show.
For instance, one of Straker's costars joins him in the theater to watch the raw footage. On UFO, the character was Colonel Paul Foster, but here he introduces himself as Mike. The actor who played Foster? Michael Billington. It's little details like this that suggest "Mindbender" really was trying to push Straker's hallucination as close to the actual production of UFO as it possibly could. At a certain point, doesn't the false version of reality get close enough that you might as well consider it the real thing?
The Case Against:
Then again, there are plenty of elements that don't match up with the actual behind the scenes of UFO. "Mindbender" would have been much more, well, mindbending if they had given the actor who played Ed Straker the same name as the man who really portrayed him. Considering that was Ed Bishop, they even could have had some somewhat amusing gags over the fact they shared the same first name.
Instead, Straker's actor name is Howard Beale, who was also an actor that, in his cover job as a movie executive, Straker had had to reprimand earlier in the episode. Much as the episode does some truly crazy, fourth wall shattering stuff for something made in 1971, there aren't nearly enough dualities for this to perfectly mirror the real making of the show, and as such it's hard not to conclude it is just a hallucination after all.
Chances That UFO Really Was All An Illusion:
15%. I'd be a lot more conflicted if they'd just been a little more meta. Although Straker's reaction to seeing his entirely life as a TV show really is heartbreaking.
4. The Red Dwarf crew, Red Dwarf
In the series five finale "Back to Reality", the crew find themselves under attack from a giant squid. Facing certain death, they suddenly awaken in a virtual reality gaming center. There, they are told they've spent the last four years playing a total immersion video game, and not playing it particularly well either. Returning to their miserable lives in a fascist state, the four friends aren't completely sure they can face their newfound existences and prepare to commit suicide together.
Luckily, they don't have to, as the ship's computer Holly is able to pull them back from the brink of despair. As it turns out, that squid that was attacking them had release a hallucinogenic toxin that caused them to experience the same hopeless fantasy as a group. The squid's effects disrupted, they are able to escape and resume their adventures. But is the world of Red Dwarf any less illusory than that of the fascist state?
The Case For:
The idea that they actually were playing a video game for four years doesn't really hold up to any serious scrutiny. Kryten alone is deeply problematic, as he didn't appear until the start of series two, when he looked and sounded vastly different (because a different actor played him), and it wasn't until the third series when he became a regular. I mean, I suppose the total immersion game could have had an entire part where one character plays housekeeper on a dead ship for the first year, especially if the players were doing a really terrible job, but it doesn't make a lot of sense.
Anyway, it's not even like UFO, which retained some slight ambiguity in that Straker didn't suddenly snap out his hallucination - he instead had to return to his office and actively choose to return. The Red Dwarf crew doesn't go back to the VR machines; indeed, we actually see them back in the real world for a few seconds before they realize where they are, as they continue to act like they're stuck in the fascist world. That's pretty conclusive visual evidence.
The Case Against:
Still, the possibility that Red Dwarf is just a slightly malfunctioning virtual reality simulation might be one way to explain all the massive, inexplicable changes to the show's continuity. For instance, the show quietly moved the characters' home century from the 21st to the 23rd, and Christine Kochanski somehow morphed from Lister's secret obsession (played by C.P. Grogan) to his ex-girlfriend (played by Chloe Arnett). Even if the despair squid simply created things that weren't there, it might well be possible that they simply returned to another layer of the game. After all, I've heard the levels of immersion involved are pretty total.
Chances That They Really Did Go Back To Reality:
65%. At a certain point not long after this episode, the show sort of stopped existing for me anyway.
5. Sam Lowry, Brazil
Mild-mannered bureaucrat Sam Lowry discovers love thanks to a clerical error, and his single-minded pursuit of what is quite literally the girl of his dreams makes him an unintentional enemy of the state. About to be tortured by his best friend Jack Lint (played by Michael Palin, in one of the all-time great underrated performances), Sam is suddenly rescued by domestic terrorist and freelance air conditioning repairman Harry Tuttle. Lowry and Tuttle proceed to blow up the Ministry of Information, but then things get a bit weird (to say the least). Sam ultimately escapes with his beloved Jill, and the two can now live happily ever after. But did any of it actually happen?
The Case For:
Completely depends on which version of Brazil you saw. Terry Gilliam's cinematic bad luck is the stuff of legend, and he faced studio interference on Brazil from the very start. Unwilling to accept Gilliam's bleak ending, Universal chairman Sid Sheinberg took his grim 142-minute version and cut it down to a breezy 94 minutes, complete with a happy ending where Sam does indeed go off to live in peace with Jill. This so-called "Love Conquers All" version appears on the Criterion release of Brazil, and was once shown in syndication on TV because its much shorter running length made it easier to market.
The Case Against:
Well, you see, the biggest thing missing from the "Love Conquers All" cut is a final scene between Jack Lint and the Deputy Minister of Information, Mr. Helpmann. The two look sadly at Sam, still strapped to the torture chair, and remark that he is "gone" - incurably insane. In other words, any legitimate version of Brazil ends with it completely clear that the happy ending is a product of Sam's broken mind. Which, considering all the crazy things that happen during his escape, is really the only plausible explanation anyway.
Chances That He Really Escaped:
5%, if only as a slight nod to the power of television syndication.
6. Allegra Geller and Ted Pikul, eXistenZ
Legendary game designer Allegra Geller has to go on the run with her de facto bodyguard Ted Pikul when an assassin shows up at a focus group for her new fully immersive masterpiece eXistenZ. The pair jump into an exponentially more bizarre adventure where it becomes impossible to know for certain what's in the real world and what's just the game. Finally, Geller realizes Pikul is the real assassin and kills him, only to find herself awaking as a member of the focus group for the actual game TranscendenZ, programmed by the actual legendary designer Yevgeny Nourish. The entire movie up to that point had all been a game, or so it would seem.
Allegra and Ted are seemingly content with their gaming experience, but then they pull Yevgeny aside to ask him whether he should pay for all the harm he has done and will do to the human race. They then shoot kill him and the head of the focus group in front of a stunned crowd of their fellow testers. They then prepare to kill another tester, who is forced to ask: "Hey, tell me the truth - are we still in the game?" So how about it? Did they ever make it back to reality?
The Case For:
Ooh boy. Let's see now. Well, there's the fact that a lot of the actors in the film only use their real accents in the final scene. That might be taken as a clue that the focus group for TranscendenZ is real, if only in the sense that the characters now actually sound like real people. Look, I honestly have no idea whether anything in eXistenZ is real or imaginary, but I do know one thing: Christopher Eccleston's American accent is the fakest thing in cinematic history.
The Case Against:
It just would seem to fundamentally go against director David Cronenberg's brutally ironic, unsparing sensibilities for the characters to ever escape the game. In fact, I think it's debatable whether there even is such a thing as "the real world" in eXistenZ, and even more debatable whether it makes much of a difference. Honestly, I'm pretty sure the question of whether they're in the real world or not is the least important part of eXistenZ.
And just so we're clear - yes, this argument has come down to a metaphysical quandary on the one hand and the ninth Doctor's terrible accent on the other. Just as it should be.
Chances That They Really Got Back To Reality:
I'm not sure. I guess you'd have to define reality first.