The Multiverse Economy

I watched Parallel (2018).

The story opens with a middle-aged couple in bed upstairs in a suburban home. Marissa hears the dog making a noise downstairs and so goes down to check he has food. She is then grabbed by a hooded masked stranger with a muffled voice.

After the stranger calms her down and reveals they know details of her home life, she is abruptly shot with a silencer. The stranger then unmasks… and is identical to her.

After putting the corpse in the boot of a car outside and taking on the clothes of her victim, she goes upstairs to take her place in her life with her husband, who can’t tell the difference.

Now cut to some tech hopefuls pitching their new app to some venture capital wolfpack.

“Meter Maid” is the big idea, and it will make it easy for groovy young hipsters to trade available parking spaces on crowded city streets, but it needs big money behind it, and so there is the opportunity to grab some digital rent from these suckers.

The suits love the idea. However, Top Suit has a further idea.

He loves the idea but he also loves the fact that there’s this other guy who used to know these guys and is now saying he can get Meter Maid ready to go by next week instead of the 4 week dev cycle you 2 losers are offering me. I guess it was your fault telling your big idea to some ethics-free-zone who works in web development. The guys go round and get mad at Seth, but Seth is all like, you guys, I got the chance at money straightaway instead of you just giving me share options.

So everyone hits the bar after this wash-out of a day. There’s a lot of banter and chat and we get told the background detail that our young gang of tech hopefuls are all renting out the house seen at the start, which now has a minor local legend that the “hermit lady” who used to live there simply vanished one time. Tempers get a bit frayed and when they head back to base and try to figure out some way to have something ready by Thursday, Devin the programmer drops the bomb that he’s tired of being a wannabe entrepeneur and is ready to check-out and become a regular wage-slave. There is a bit of anger and someone throws something at the kitchen wall, causing a dent, which leads to the revelation that it is hiding a secret staircase to an attic full of strange things, such as a periscope device that can view all the other rooms in the house.

While the guys are goofing around and discovering the wardrobe that has a hidden passageway out the back of the house, Devin accidentally makes the momentous discovery that a special mirror at the back of the room has special powers.

When it’s in position at the correct angle, there’s a crackly noise and you can pass through it into… somewhere.

Let’s just review again who the team are, who will go on this special journey: Devin the tech guy, who is tormented by a backstory about his dad, a crooked businessman who killed himself rather than go to prison; Noel the business school dude, who will attempt to turn into Elon Musk if untreated; Leena a wannabe artist who ended up doing graphic design as well and works on all the front-end graphics for the team; and Josh, who is the junior tech guy and a bit drinky and unstable.

What these 4 heroes soon learn from experimenting with the mirror is that it is a portal into close-by alternative universes, opening always into the alt-version of this attic. It seems it is always a different alt-world every time they cross the boundary. It seems (it’s a bit unclear on this point) that it’s always the same time that they go across to; though they also plan missions to cross in at night time. The periscope is awfully useful for checking when it’s safe to go out the back around the house. In all universes, the house is occupied by alt-versions of themselves, who haven’t found the secret staircase. Another key detail: “time is slower there” – ie. in alt-universe hours can pass but only minutes have passed in the source timeline between exit and return. It seems the ratio is always the same. This is immediately exploited by our gang, who utilise the device to… cram weeks of software development into 3 days of our universe’s time, and thus win the race against Seth and deliver the Meter Maid contract. Like, wow.

Things that don’t quite make sense:

  1. If Marissa disappeared into an alt-timeline where she killed her alt-self, who did the work of blocking up the staircase to the magic attic? If she ordered it done in advance, and got back in one last time through the secret side entrance, how wasn’t that later discovered? Or was it already that way, and she discovered it? Did no estate agent order a survey to check the dimensions of this house and figure out there must be more space that can’t be easily accessed? This is a general problem with “hidden chambers” stories – a structural issue, so to speak.
  2. If you always go into a different world, how could she have planned and prepped to carry out a murder in a world that is sufficiently different that someone is alive there who is dead in this one? How did she have the car ready etc.
  3. Awfully helpful of Marissa to have left a diary behind explaining it all.
  4. Why is there no alt-world in which their alt-versions have also discovered the hidden staircase? They must have plenty of arguments where they throw things at the wall, not least when they find out how broke they are thanks to time-travelling visitors (see below).
  5. The overall time of the story, in the sense of duration, seems awfully fast – the millions are piling up after only a month or 2. Even in the universe of tech-startup bluffery that would be a bit much for a bunch of newbies who won’t disclose where all these golden ideas are coming from.
  6. Did Noel really hang out with Devin and Josh at college? Really?

Things which are depressing rather than confusing:

  1. Our heroes show no interest at all in deep investigation of this magical phenomenon – there is no interlude of them trying to find a physicist who might care, or searching in old texts about scrying etc.
  2. They are quite happy to go to steal their own credit cards in alt-universes and go on spending sprees, because they know what a bunch of assholes they really are so it’s ok to hate on yourself if it’s not your actual self, I guess.
  3. In addition to going over and beating up alt-Seth and then running away and leaving their alt-selves to get in trouble with the law (presumably), they also go to alt-worlds to do mad stuff which they could be able to do in this one now that they have bags of money from Meter Maid, and all the other projects Noel is lining up now he can purloin ideas that are already public domain in other worlds to this one.

The crucial inconsistency is on the issue of transworld similarity: it seems that they are always reliably crossing to a world where they occupy the house, because the nearest alt-worlds are the ones where the differences are in background details about pop culture and art & design. That’s how Leena is able to finally start having a successful art career by copying acclaimed artworks from other worlds. But how in that case can the set of nearby worlds also include worlds in which people close to them are living or dead when they aren’t here, and also significant science and tech breakthroughs have been made. If that much difference is possible then it’s not a safe bet that stepping through the mirror will always go somewhere useful (and what about worlds where the house burned down some time earlier, or the mirror got moved somewhere else?)

Good things about this film:

  1. When someone is brought back from alt-world to “replace” someone here, the newly-installed one gets confused by noticing minor discrepancies, and there is a neat allusion to the Berenstain Bears and other cases of the “Mandela Effect”… incidentally, the death of F.W.DeKlerk this week surprised me as I thought he died some time earlier.
  2. The scene set in an open-plan office full of people working on laptops is now starting to look as dated as any presentation of I.T. in 80s dramas. Not sure that’s a good thing but it jolted me when I saw it as I vaguely had the idea this film was made in 2021.
  3. Noel’s sneer about the guy whose career he ruined in order to get a job for Josh: “his life was ruined already: he was a software developer”.
  4. Noel’s evolution into an Elon Musk parody, culminating in telling Leena that they will be global leaders together, with her in charge of “art & culture” while he handles all the technical stuff. I suppose that’s how El talked to Grimes when they were still together.
  5. The superb body-horror moment near the end, also the twist ending that seems to break the rules we were told already.

But this isn’t a hard sci-fi text about time travel, it’s a traditional fable about greedy grasping humans tempted by magic to ever more extreme actions and scheming and ending up destroying everything. We could take it as an allegory about Google and the expansion of the digital industries around it, consuming all ideas and inspiration and trying to monetise them through tech. The filming uses a few simple tricks to make it all as clear as it can be, with pulled-focus shots and softer-focus on alt-characters who have come across from other times into this one. I suppose it’s a good thing it didn’t get lost in its own backstory of trying to explain how Marissa came to understand the magic mirror or whether she simply inherited it. I suppose there was potential here for a TV series, although The Dark already flogged into the ground mad plots across timelines.

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