Through a Mirror, Darkly: Josh Pearce and Arley Sorg Discuss Parallel

Four friends living together and working to develop an app discover a hidden room in their house and, in it, a magic mirror that can portal them to different, but nearly indistinguishable, parallel universes. Eager to capitalize on the nearly unlimited resources of the multiverse, Leena (Georgia King), Noel (Martin Wallström), Devin (Aml Ameen), and Josh (Mark O’Brien) soon devise a number of get-rich-quick schemes, mostly at the expense of their own parallel selves.

Their pursuits of money, power, lust, love, and second chances start to reveal fractures in their friendship and in their morality, and when one of the group dies, the others must decide how far they’ll go to make things normal again.

Josh: It’s not a terrible movie. It was entertaining, if not a complete success. The rules were a little arbitrary, especially at the very end.

Arley: It’s not a science fiction movie, it’s a fantasy movie. They tried to make it science fiction, but the more they tried to explain things, the less sense it made.

Josh: Yeah, there was a lot of hand-waving and unilateral restrictions to the worldbuilding that didn’t seem to serve the plot. The weird periscope thing, the universes resetting every time they went through the mirror, and the time dilation.

Arley: The time dilation was a problem. They could have just called it magic.

Josh: This is one of the few times I actually wished they would’ve just made it magic. Like The Magician’s Nephew, which is my favorite of the Narnia books. The characters in that are just jumping in and out of portals and experiencing time differences and the book doesn’t make any attempt to explain the mechanics, simply focuses on an interesting story.

Parallel‘s production values are good (there’s a visual effect at the climax that is nearly worth the price of admission on its own), but the story suffers from an overabundance of separate story threads, almost none of which further the actual plot or come to a real resolution. Unlike LX 2048, this doesn’t make the film feel overstuffed with ideas, but rather hollow and empty as each concept is given only a surface-level examination before moving on to the next “cool idea.”

As an example, one character is unwittingly drawn into a parallel universe and develops paranoid symptoms arising from the Berenstain Bears version of the Mandela Effect. That setup could allow us to explore interesting issues such as, “What is reality?” or “Can I trust my memories?” or “Is this insanity or a conspiracy?” Instead, it’s used to sideline this character and keep them away from the action.

Josh: That scene where the two dudes find a DVD of a movie that doesn’t exist in their universe is straight out of Tim Pratt’s 2007 Hugo Award winning story, “Impossible Dreams“.

Arley: The characters quoted Clarke and Heinlein, and I was like so… you haven’t read anything new.

Josh: Explicitly using the Clarke quote means your audience is rookie science fiction fans. Basically the same audience as Black Mirror, I think.

Arley: Non-SF readers will be dazzled by the concept and the quotes. SF readers, though, will not. We’ve all already seen stories about traveling through mirrors—

Josh: This movie is literally Through the Looking Glass.

Arley: —and parallel universes are everywhere. Star Trek, Rick and Morty. You’re going to have to bring something new to the table if you want to play with such an overused concept.

Josh: The idea of searching the multiverse for dead loved ones is also a common trope. Hell, even Into the Spider-verse did it, and we called that out as being the least innovative aspect of that movie.

Another way of approaching the film is as a character study, instead of as an exploration of a SF concept. It starts with a completely standard set of characters (including Black best friend and token woman), and then switches things up about halfway through. The cliché characters, often the most sidelined or quickly eliminated in other movies, become the heroes in this one.

It is difficult to summon sympathy for the four main characters. They start out as unabashed capitalists of the “greed is good” variety and have no qualms about immediately exploiting a newly discovered land for their own enrichment. Even more worrying, they have no problem with exploiting their own duplicates, suggesting a subconscious level of self-loathing.

Arley: I thought it was going to explore the question of whether or not parallel versions are actually real, like Hugh Jackman does in The Prestige, but it didn’t get too deep into that.

Josh: I didn’t like any of these characters, though Devin did have some character development as it went along. I thought his scene in prison was the best point of the movie. It was emotionally deep.

Arley: The fact that they immediately found this device and then wanted to use it to make money was real.

Josh: That’s like the plot of every Rudy Rucker novel.

For the most part, there is a serious lack of introspection in each of the characters’ choices. The ones who do express misgivings still go along with things for a long time, way past the point of moral culpability. Coming face-to-face with yourself should be one of the greatest existential horrors imaginable—as it implicates a paradigm shift and also because meeting your doppelgänger is traditionally a harbinger of your death—but they do not spend any time wandering along that garden of forking paths, which a clever storyteller could use as a device for insightful character development. The Tales from the Loop episode, “Parallels”, demonstrates that how you treat yourself reveals who you are as a person.

Maybe the point that Parallel is trying to make is “power corrupts.” Devin says things like, “Failure is crucial, it’s the best way to learn,” and, “A man is his actions,” but these brief epiphanies and the few strong emotional moments do not connect to make a theme. Without a clear redemptive note, and faced with literally infinite bad decisions, it at best comes across as a nihilistic meditation on the pointlessness of human endeavor.

The acting, though, is solid enough to sell each character’s role despite some distracting directing choices.

Josh: The directing was kind of amateurish sometimes? The whip pans couldn’t lock on—it seemed like the camera was handheld. The time-lapse shots were all right, though.

Arley: The color palette was ’80s/’90s horror movie in the opening, but after that it changed to Americana like American Psycho, and then after that it went back to horror. Some of those shots reminded me of Hellraiser, you just know they’re in this low-budget set, this stripped back house.

From the synopsis and the trailer, we’d expect something stripped-down and intricately designed—a multiverse version of Primer, maybe—with multiple versions of each character working in ever-shifting alliances across uncanny set pieces to become as gods. For such supposedly brilliant people, they sure do make the most basic decisions.

Arley: I almost resented that they said that creative types were the variable across the multiverse. A) You have a really narrow definition of what a creative type is. Architects, city planners, etc. make creative choices all the time. B) You underestimate the impact of creative types on the world if you think the only difference is that the Mona Lisa has a short haircut.

Josh: I found it kind of hard to believe that that was the only way they could capitalize on the differences AND the time dilation. They could have robbed a bank, or several banks and escaped back through the portal. They could have robbed the same bank over and over. But that’s overthinking things. Would you recommend it?

Arley: I’m not mad that I watched it. But if someone asked, I would be like, “Only if you’re bored and out of shows.” You?

Josh: I would recommend Coherence. It’s this low-budget film with the dude from Buffy

Arley: Are you talking about Xander?

Josh: Yeah, Nicholas Brendon. Coherence was a good parallel to this movie as a way to show how you can make an intricate multiverse story, and it has almost the exact same “twist” ending.

Directed by: Isaac Ezban

Written by: Scott Blaszak

Starring: Georgia King, Martin Wallström, Mark O’Brien, Aml Ameen, Kathleen Quinlan, Alyssa Diaz & Carmel Amit

Josh Pearce, Arley Sorg (by Laurel Amberdine)

ARLEY SORG, Associate Editor, grew up in England, Hawaii, and Colorado. He studied Asian Religions at Pitzer College. He lives in Oakland, and usually writes in local coffee shops. A 2014 Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate, he is soldering together a novel, has thrown a few short stories into orbit, and hopes to launch more.

JOSH PEARCE, Assistant Editor, started working at Locus in 2016. He studied creative writing at SFSU and has sold short stories and poems to a variety of speculative fiction magazines. Born and raised in the Bay Area, he currently lives in the East Bay with his wife and sons and spends way too much time on Twitter: @fictionaljosh. One time, Ken Jennings signed his chest.

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