Control Flicks: Movies That Mess With Your Mind

Apr 15, 2011

Four times in eight months, I've been caught up in science-fiction worlds that seem remarkably like the world I actually live in — urban, brightly lit, not filled with aliens, zombies or futuristic gadgets. Just a lot of people with control issues.

First it was Leonardo DiCaprio and his dream-controlling buddies in Inception, then Matt Damon battling with handlers who want to control his life in The Adjustment Bureau, then Bradley Cooper battling with the pills controlling his life in Limitless. And most recently, Jake Gyllenhaal, yelling "What aren't you telling me?!" as he tries to figure out who and what he's battling for control in Source Code.

What they aren't telling him, they kind of aren't telling the audience, either ... in any of these stories. So unlike most movies in which everything's painstakingly laid out for us, we have to battle for control, too — figuring out what the rules are, how the movie world works.

It would be hard to overstate how unusual this is. Directors sometimes withhold information to build up suspense, but they almost always go to great pains to make sure everything's clear. These movies go to great pains to mess with your mind, creating dreamscapes, drug hazes, alternate and simulated realities to throw you off balance. And having four of them succeed with audiences at once is very unusual.

One a year is more like it — say, 2000's backward-spinning Memento, then a year later, the reality-splicing Vanilla Sky, and three years after that, the memory scrubbing Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Mind you, except for Vanilla Sky, which was a Tom Cruise action flick, none of these films went very far at the box office.

So what accounts for the $1 billion gross of the current crop of control-issue movies? Could we be so battered these days by headline-making meltdowns — economic, atomic and despotic — that we're seeking refuge in complexity? Are we glorying in watching folks solve even trickier problems than we face in less than two hours?

There's something gratifying in that, even if the heroes get a lot of screenwriting help. I mean, I could fix a lot of things if I had access to brainiac pills, or a hat that let me sidestep the laws of physics, or if I could keep going back in time until I got things right. That's practically a superpower. In fact, let me go back over the last few sentences and get this right. Cue backward-rolling tape (as if anyone uses tape these days).

The success of these films probably has less to do with the state of the world than with the state of the movies themselves. Simply stated, they're fun — brain teasers that are accessible, for all the trickiness of their concepts.

As for how the filmmakers came up with those concepts? That's a little harder to explain. Unless, of course, they're all pill-popping dreamers, taking orders from on high, with urgent but constantly extended deadlines.

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