Head Trips and Virtual Life in the Films of 2010

About 10 years ago, reverberating with millennial anxiety, some of the era’s most indelible films worked out a sense of existential dread. Movies like The Matrix (1999), Memento (2001), Waking Life (2001), Vanilla Sky (2001), and Mulholland Drive (2001) questioned the nature of dreams, memory, perception, and reality — self-examination through science fiction and altered states.

A decade or so later, with social media triumphant and more people than ever experiencing a growing sense of ease or even comfort with the virtual yet interconnected likes of Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, and the like, many of 2010’s best movies had one or both feet in virtual or imaginary worlds. Unlike the blatant head trips of the previous set, though, this batch of films finds characters navigating the complexities of these worlds, not waking up to discover their existence — presenting fewer existential challenges than logistical ones.

It makes a kind of sense, then, that the near-universal choice for movie of the year is David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin’s The Social Network, a chronicle of the founding of Facebook. The movie itself is old-fashioned in terms of craft, with lots of speedy, pointed dialogue and few of Fincher’s usual stylistic flourishes. The movie depicts Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) as a genius with such relentless understanding of what his users want that he barely understands how to be human in real life.

The movie doesn’t demonize Facebook or online interaction or even Zuckerberg himself, but it does dramatize the kind of messy interpersonal relationships that went into a website that hinges on accruing and interacting with hundreds or thousands of “friends.” Its haunting closing shot, with Zuckerberg obsessively reloading his own Facebook page, hoping for an online connection with his ex-girlfriend, garnered some audience laughter at my showing — not out of derision, I don’t think, but a mixture of pity and discomforting familiarity. For that moment, Zuckerberg is lost in his virtual world.

That danger surfaces for most of the characters in Inception, my choice for the best film of the year. The film, from Memento‘s Christopher Nolan, was criticized in some corners for a rote approach to the concept of exploring (and stealing from) an individual’s dreams. With a concept as freeing and potentially surreal as exploring endless dreamscapes, the argument went, why would the characters’ dreams look more or less like a Hollywood spy movie?

Yet Nolan uses the framework of a heist movie to give the dreaming world(s) a seductive, elusive quality. The dangers that interest him — the way Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) stay trapped in a dream for a virtual lifetime, and can’t resume a normal life when they finally wake — would have less emotional pull in a land of bizarre, Gilliam-esque dreamscapes. Some read Inception‘s epic meticulousness as an obvious metaphor for the experience of filmmaking itself; I don’t think this was Nolan’s primary intent, but I understand the mistake. The film’s voyages deeper into the subconscious evoke a sensation of perpetual beginning and discovery, one of the most immediate and visceral pleasures of film.

Primal feelings animate Toy Story 3, too. The Pixar series has always dealt with the secret world of toys who come to life when people aren’t looking, and the trilogy capper brings this extended metaphor for childhood (and parenthood) to a lovely, moving end. Woody, Buzz, and the other toys must face a world without their owner Andy, and the film brings them bravely close to a literal abyss before pulling back and finding a well-earned happy (yet bittersweet) ending. In the tear-jerking sequence of the year, Andy passes his playthings on to a younger child, keeping the secret world of play alive — yet still separate from the realm of adult responsibilities.

Movies like Inception and Toy Story 3 integrated alternate worlds seamlessly into their narrative reality, toggling between realities with effortless skill. Other fantasy worlds of 2010 depended on a more traditional divide. In that sense, Black Swan indulges a more old-fashioned trippiness when Darren Aronofsky blurs the line between reality and mental instability for dancer Nina (Natalie Portman), and puts viewers into her frazzled, paranoid headspace, working over horror and hysteria tropes with a style and vigor similar to Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island earlier in the year. The wonderfully dark yet humane I Love You Phillip Morris takes an even more analog approach to virtual reality: real-life con man Steven Russell (Jim Carrey) engineers a series of lives through an imaginative and compulsive series of lies and scams.

The construction of these alternate realities probably appeals to some filmmakers because, as those Inception theorists point out, the process does mimic the fundamentals of filmmaking: creating a new world for the audience, even when using naturalism of Fish Tank or Tiny Furniture, and especially when the goal is the sort of heightened B-movie favored by Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez (what a glorious unofficial alternate universe the latter creates with the Mexploitation of Machete!). The year’s biggest hit after the Toy Story sequel, Tim Burton’s family-friendly take on Alice in Wonderland, eschewed the seriousness of the Lord of the Rings or even Narnia movies in favor of a fanciful otherworldiness based on Lewis Carroll’s stubborn illogic: the fantasy land as an altered state of mind.

Audiences didn’t enter every virtual world with such willingness. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World was pegged as a possible surprise summer hit, but only a dedicated cult showed up at the box office. The film imagines a videogame-infused consciousness without comment; the film’s young characters aren’t trapped in a videogame and trying to fight their way out, but rather simply living in a world (or at least operating from a point of view) that uses the language of videogames (as well as graphic novels and technology) to express obstacles, longing, defeat, and triumph. The film was hailed by some as a next-generational event; to others, it was a pandering, empty exercise in demographic targeting, a movie using videogame imagery to adapt a graphic novel with heavy gamer and anime influences — all culture and no commentary.

Scott Pilgrim certainly soaks itself in pop culture, but its appropriation of videogame and comic book imagery is playful and often ingenious, a witty, daydreamy variation on the psychological horrors of movies like Black Swan or Shutter Island. It also, like Toy Story 3, shows real hope for a multi-world future. If the movie version of Mark Zuckerberg has trouble with his human connections, the movie version of Scott Pilgrim can be his role model: a nerdy, awkward, yet weirdly confident young man who triumphs over his affectations and neuroses not by rejecting his cultural obsessions but taking control of them (and, you know, not being a self-centered jerk). Similarly, many of 2010’s best triumphed not by rejecting the artifice or fantasy of filmmaking or gaming or dreaming, but by hopping between worlds, ever beginning.