7 Movies and TV Shows That Master the Multiple Reality Narrative

On the 17th anniversary of German cult classic Run Lola Run, we're listing up our favorite multiple-reality on-screen stories.

Today (June 18th) marks the 17th anniversary of the release of German film classic Run Lola Run, the Tom Tywker film that would go on to become a cult classic for any cinephile who loves complex action thrillers with a existential twist… Also, running.

As great and revolutionary as music video-inspired Run Lola Runis, it is part of a much longer history of films and TV shows that embrace the multiple reality narratives — i.e. on-screen stories that show multiple outcomes of the same moments in time. You’ve got your time loops. You’ve got your parallel realities. You’ve got your differing perspectives of the same event. 

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Often, these narratives take place during a particularly terrible period in our protagonist’s life — but not always. Often, they are relegated to just one, single day — though not always. Almost always, however, they explore the thematic complexities between free will vs. determinism, in how much control over the course of our lives we truly have. They are an exploration of cause and effect in a medium that is all about cause and effect. Also, often there are trains.

Here are seven of our favorite examples of multiple reality on-screen storytelling like Run Lola Run

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Rashomon (1950)

We’re loosening the category here a bit, but Rashomanis a film classic, so it deserves the allowance. If you’ve never seen the Japanese classic from Akira Kirosawa, then you’ve probbalt seen something that’s been inspired by it. The film is based on Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s short story “In a Grove,” and tells the story of a man’s murder and the rape of his wife from four different character’s perspective: the bandit, the wife, the samurai, and the woodcutter.

Though the term “Rashomon” is used to describe a narrative that tells the “truth” in its final version of events, the film itself is much more ambiguous when it comes to validating any of the accounts as Truth. Instead, we are left with a thematically-complex, morally-challenging film that doesn’t let the viewer off so easily.

Watch Rashomon on Amazon

Blind Chance (1981)

Polish political film Blind Chance has gone on to inspire many of the other examples on this list, but is perhaps the least-watched of our multiple-reality stories. Directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski in 1981 (but suppressed until 1987 by Polish authorities), it tells the story of Witek, a young man living in Communist Poland who does and doesn’t catch a train. The film goes from there, showing three separate possible series of events…

In the first, Witek catches the train, meets a Communist, and decides to join the Communist party. In the second, he misses the train, is arrested for running into a railway guard, and eventually joins the anti-Community party. In the third, he misses the train but doesn’t slam into the guard, instead falling in love with a woman he meets on the platform.

Blind Chancehas inspired Gwyneth Paltrow romance Sliding Doorsand Run Lola Run, though the former only includes two possible outcomes, and the latter has as its time frame a much shorter period (20 minutes vs. at least a year). Additionally and perhaps more than any other film on the list, Blind Chancepresents the widest variety of possible outcomes stemming from one, seemingly arbitrary moment in a human’s life, centered around the political. Witek is establishment political (i.e. Communist), then radically political (i.e. anti-Communist), then apolitical. 

If you have never seen Blind Chance, it is very much worth the watch — if only to dip your toe into the rich, political world of Eastern European cinema and to see the film that would go on to inspire so many other multiple reality classcis.

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Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Cause and Effect” (1992)

Perhaps more common than the multiple reality narrative is the time loop narrative, as seen in Star Trek: The Next Generation‘sseason 5 episode “Cause and Effect.” The episode — written by Brannon Braga and directed by Jonathan Frakes — opens with the Enterprise blowing up, which has got to be one of the best TNGcold opens in the series’ entire run. Luckily, the destruction happens near a distortion in the space-time continuum, which means the Enterprise and its crew is thrown into a time loop, giving them a chance to relive the events leading up to their deaths again and again and, eventually, avoid their ends.

Like the other TV episode featured on this list, “Cause and Effect” gives much more power to its protagonists than most of the films do, allowing them to realize they are living the same day over and over again and to change it. The tight writing and execution makes for an episode that could have been formulaic, but is actually a classic. Plus, there is poker.

Watch Star Trek: The Next Generation on Amazon

Groundhog Day (1993)

We’ve all seen Groundhog Day, right? It’s a Bill Murray classic — one part comedy, one part soul-crushing angst, and one part morality tale. The basic time-loopy premise: TV meteorologist Phil Connors is kind of the worst. Then, he gets caught in a time loop in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania while covering Groundhog Day, and soon (OK, not that soon — it kind of takes him a long time) learns the value and skill of loving others — most specifically, Andie MacDowell.

Groundhog Dayis a great film for so many reasons, but the thing that makes it stand out within our list of multiple reality classics is that Phil first uses his knowledge of the time loop he’s stuck in for completely selfish, hedonic purposes. He also eventually tries commiting suicide. (Yeah, things get surprisingly and understandably dark when you actually sit down and think about this plot.) Both of these things are theoretically understandable (or at least human) actions given that a multi-year time loop is basically a nightmare scenario. 

Watch Groundhog Day on Amazon

Sliding Doors (1998)

Many people dismiss Sliding Doorsfor its more melodramatic elements and its emphasis on haircuts, but its winning cast  — especially Gwyneth Paltrow and John Hannah — are able to juggle the more dramatic elements with grace that makes this romantic drama stick in one’s brain years after its viewing. Roughly, the film tells the story of Helen, a British woman who loses her job then misses and doesn’t miss a train.

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In one version of events, Helen arrives home in time to find her boyfriend cheating on her. In the other, she does not, staying ignorant of his infidelity. The film intertwines the two alternate realites, rather than showing them back-to-back like so many of the examples on this list.

By and large, it is an exploration of infidelity from a female perspective that often gets shoehorned into the romantic comedy genre that too often equates the solution to a breach in trust as finding the right, new man. However, Sliding Doorsis quietly subversive in this way. Sure, though the ending implies that Helen and good guy James might end up together, it avoids the traditional happy ending one might expect by killing off one of the two versions of Helen and making the “happily ever after” of the remaining Helen somewhat ambiguous.

Watch Sliding Doors on Amazon

Run Lola Run (1999)

The movie we are all here for! Run Lola Runis a visceral experience — one that deftly and innovatively twists film convention (real-time, animation, fast editing, split screens, the list goes on) in a way that the film and TV industry has spent the last two decades catching up with.

Here’s the plot: Lola gets a phone call from her boyfriend Manni. He needs 100,000 marks or his boss is going to kill him. From there, we follow Lola through three different scenarios of the next 20 minutes as she tries desperately to secure the funds and keep Manni from doing anything stupid.

Arguably the best part of Run Lola Runis the film’s flash-forwards to show the fates of the people Lola runs into as she is making her way across Berlin. In each reality, the flash-forwards are different, implying that the often relatively minor way Lola has affected them can completely change the course of their lives.

The film’s director, Tom Tywker, would go on to collaborate with the Wachowskis on both Cloud Atlasand Sense8 — which means Run Lola Run legacy isn’t just in the awesomeness and innovation of this film, but in the opportunities it no doubt brought Tywker. 

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Watch Run Lola Run on Amazon

The X-Files, “Monday” (1999)

Written by the man who would go on to create Breaking Bad(aka the brilliant Vince Gilligan), “Monday” was one of those episode of The X-Filesthat really had no doubt being as good and novel as it was in the sixth season of this show. Like “Cause and Effect,” “Monday” puts its main characters in a time loop that continues to end in their deaths.

What starts out as just a regular bad day in the life of Mulder and Scully (when Mulder’s waterbed springs a leak, shorting out his alarm clock, and making him late for an important meeting with Scully and Skinner), turns into a terrible day when Mulder’s bank is held-up. In most versions of the day, Mulder is not only shot, but the robber blows up the entire bank, killing everyone in it — including Mulder and Scully.

“Monday” holds up even better than “Cause and Effect,” making skilled use of multiple shots and perspectives in the various incarnations of the time loop — finding that perfect balance between repetition and meaningful variation. For an episode that involves Mulder and Scully dying multiple times, “Monday” is also pretty funny. From the fact that Mulder has a waterbed (a fun, clever holdover from Morris Fletcher’s shenanigans in the “Dreamland” two-parter) to Scully’s unsurprised exasperation over Mulder’s inability to show up to a meeting on time, there’s so much to like about “Monday.”

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What are your favorite multiple reality stories? Share your picks in the comments below.