What if things turn out differently? That’s often the central question behind stories about alternate realities, parallel dimensions, reimagined histories, and the like. What would our lives look like if something had unfolded differently, and is there a version of us somewhere in a vast multiverse who lives a life that, to us, is purely hypothetical? From the darker histories of iconic heroes to chilling thrillers and time-looping comedies, here’s what we’ve picked as the best alternate reality films of all time.
One of the most oft-repeated sentiments in stories involving time travel is that it’s better to learn to live with the past and be grateful for your present. Things, after all, could always be worse. But what if the trauma you suffered as a child is unthinkable? Shouldn’t you get a pass when it comes to the conventional time-travel rules? Not according to The Butterfly Effect.
Ashton Kutcher stars in the thriller as Evan, a college student whose childhood trauma includes sexual abuse and almost being murdered by his own father. So when Evan discovers that reading his childhood journal somehow gives him the ability to return to the past and change what happened, he goes for it. But the more he does it, the more unpredictable alternate futures he creates — each one more disastrous than the one before it. Worse still, years of contradicting memories begin pulverizing his mind.
While critics weren’t the biggest fans of The Butterfly Effect, audiences clearly parted ways with reviewers and helped pave the way for 2006’s The Butterfly Effect 2 and 2009’s The Butterfly Effect 3: Revelations.
Rotten Tomatoes: 33%
Stars: Ashton Kutcher, Amy Smart, Melora Walters
Director: Eric Bress, J. Mackye Gruber
Runtime: 113 minutes
What do you do when you’re unlucky enough to witness the death of Spider-Man? If you’re Miles Morales, you team up with a whole bunch more of them.
While comic book fans have known about Miles Morales for years, it took until 2018 for the younger Spider-Man to become a household name. After his world’s Peter Parker falls victim to the Kingpin, Miles takes up the mantle and is joined by alternate versions of Spider-Man from parallel worlds. There’s an older and disillusioned version of Peter Parker (Jake Johnson), and Spider-Woman Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) initially masquerades as one of Miles’s classmates. There’s also the gravelly-voiced Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), the young Peni Parker (Kimiko Glen), and, of course, cartoon pig Spider-Ham (John Mulaney).
It’s hilarious, full of as much action as any CGI-heavy live-action film, and is a love letter to superheroes and comic books. In a year overstuffed with superhero movies, 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse distinguished itself from the pack and now finds a home in any best superhero movies list worth the time it takes to read.
Rotten Tomatoes: 97%
Stars: Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Nicolas Cage, John Mulaney
Directors: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman
Runtime: 117 minutes
In the fast-paced sci-fi thriller Source Code, the alternate reality that Captain Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) experiences isn’t created by an alternate history but instead by fantastic technology.
Stevens is shocked and confused at first to find himself in the body of schoolteacher Sean Fentress, and his bewilderment is cut short by an explosion. Soon, he discovers Fentress is one of many victims of a train bombing. Using a strange new technology, Stevens is being sent into the memories of a dead man to see if he can determine the identity of the bomber. The more Stevens uncovers about the bombing, the more secrets are revealed about how and why he’s found himself in the middle of this bizarre assignment.
Rotten Tomatoes: 92%
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga
Director: Duncan Jones
Runtime: 93 minutes
Reminiscent of 1990’s Flatliners, the thriller Parallel likewise asks a high cost from its heroes for traveling to where they shouldn’t. Not long after finding a mysterious mirror in their attic, four housemates discover that the mirror inexplicably leads to parallel universes. Two of the housemates use it to steal intellectual property, another to find a way to mend fences with his father, while one just wants to use it for sexual conquest. In each case, the housemates learn they must pay increasingly darker tolls for using the strange mirror, and it won’t be long before the cost is too high.
Rotten Tomatoes: 82%
Stars: Aml Ameen, Martin Wallström, Georgia King
Director: Isaac Ezban
Runtime: 104 minutes
What starts off as nothing more than a goofy rom-com becomes a lot more interesting in 2020’s Palm Springs. Things are getting steamy between Sarah (Cristin Milioti) and Nyles (Andy Samberg) when the latter is shot by an arrow. Injured and warning Sarah to stay away, Nyles crawls into a nearby cave. Sarah ignores the warnings, follows Nyles, and suddenly, they’re both pulled into a powerful vortex. Sarah wakes up, and it’s the morning of November 9 — which is impossible because it just was November 9.
An interesting twist on the time-loop trope, Palm Springs is much more than a Groundhog Day clone through superb writing and a much darker tone. The nihilism that just about anyone would experience in such a weird turn of events comes through a lot more clearly in Palm Springs while still proving hilarious.
Rotten Tomatoes: 95%
Stars: Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti, J.K. Simmons
Director: Max Barbakow
Runtime: 90 minutes
This holiday mainstay probably isn’t the first thing that springs to mind when you consider alternate reality movies, but considering the premise, it certainly fits the bill. It is, after all, an alternate timeline that is revealed to the despondent George Bailey (James Stewart) as he considers suicide. When Bailey pleads to have never been born, the wingless angel Clarence (Henry Travers) deposits him in a new version of Bedford Falls, where his absence leaves it a much more depressing place. Not only is It’s A Wonderful Life often considered one of the greatest films of all time in spite of bombing at the box office, but it also stands out as a life-affirming entry in an otherwise often dark list.
Rotten Tomatoes: 94%
Stars: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore
Director: Frank Capra
Runtime: 130 minutes
Say “time loop movie,” and, for many, the 1993 comedy Groundhog Day will be the first thing they think of. Starring Bill Murray as the arrogant and cruel weatherman Phil, Groundhog Day finds its hero stuck in the small Pennsylvania town of Punxsutawney, reliving the same day — Groundhog Day — over and over again. At first, Phil understandably freaks out at his bizarre situation, and he uses it for his own gain, such as gathering more information each repeating day about his producer Rita (Andie MacDowell) in the hopes of seducing her. When that doesn’t work, things get weird in the best and funniest ways. If you haven’t seen it before, then do yourself a favor and correct that. Every time someone describes a new time loop movie, they call it “Groundhog Day except with …” and it’s about time to discover why for yourself.
Rotten Tomatoes: 96%
Stars: Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell, Chris Elliott
Director: Harold Ramis
Runtime: 101 minutes
Donnie Darko may very well take you more than one screening to wrap your head around. At first, Donnie Darko seems like nothing but an off-kilter tale about a mentally ill teenager and his disturbing hallucinations. But as the story unfolds, the titular hero proves to be experiencing something potentially apocalyptic involving time travel, destiny, and the creepiest rabbit suit you’re likely to see in this or any other dimension.
Rotten Tomatoes: 86%
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Mary McDonnell
Director: Richard Kelly
Runtime: 113 minutes
Coherence is a wonderful hidden gem. Initially, the film gives us nothing more than friends gathering for a dinner party. After a comet passes overhead, however, things start going sideways as doubles of people and places appear. We don’t want to say too much because what keeps you teetering on the edge of your seat all through Coherence is the mystery of exactly what is going on.
Rotten Tomatoes: 88%
Stars: Emily Baldoni, Maury Sterling, Nicholas Brendon
Director: James Ward Byrkit
Runtime: 89 minutes
Another Earth is a breed apart from most sci-fi films. The indie film stars Brit Marling as Rhoda, a young science prodigy with a bright future until she unintentionally kills a pregnant woman and her unborn child while driving drunk. After leaving prison, Rhoda becomes entangled in the life of John (William Mapother) — the man she unintentionally made a widower. At the same time, Rhoda has high hopes of some kind of redemption when a mirror Earth is discovered. In spite of its science-fiction premise, Another Earth is primarily a drama and a powerful one at that.
Rotten Tomatoes: 66%
Stars: Brit Marling, William Mapother, Matthew-Lee Erlbach
Director: Mike Cahill
Runtime: 92 minutes
What if, rather than landing in Kansas, the ship carrying the infant Kal-El came down in the Soviet Union? That’s the premise of the excellent animated movie Superman: Red Son, based on the 2003 DC Comics mini-series of the same name.
In Red Son, Superman works for Joseph Stalin — until the Kryptonian takes the reins of the Soviet Union for himself. Along with getting to see altered versions of Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, and more, what’s most intriguing about Red Son is that while Kal-El is essentially the same guy, he is so not the same guy. In other words, this Superman is, at heart, a good man, but one raised to believe in the teachings of Stalinism. The animation and the flying and the punching may be the main reason to watch this one, but it also offers an interesting argument for how our beliefs are formed not by individualism but by the random chance of where we’re raised.
Rotten Tomatoes: 88%
Stars: Jason Isaacs, Amy Acker, Diedrich Bader
Director: Sam Liu
Runtime: 84 minutes
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