Imagine a low-budget movie whose characters take “The Matrix” a little too seriously. They think we’re all living in “The Matrix,” a vast computer program that has just enough glitches in it to give us clues about what’s going on.
Our memories tell us that the comic Sinbad played a genie in a movie called “Shazaam,” we were sure that Nelson Mandela died in a South African prison in the ’80s, “Jif” peanut butter used to have a different name.
And who the heck changed the “Looney Toons” series of cartoons to “Looney Tunes?”
Imagine a REALITY where Internet conspiracy buffs see all this as “proof” that it isn’t our memories that are tricking us, it’s the Master Programmer, or whoever.
Concede this point to the makers of “The Mandela Effect.” They’ve hit on a fascinating hook. Their trip down the rabbit hole isn’t as compelling or suspenseful as one might hope, but for subject matter, they’ve picked a doozy.
“Mandela Effect” is about a couple (Charlie Hofheimer, Aleksa Palladino) grieving for their lost daughter. Claire is struggling to get back to a routine. But Brendan? He’s talking to their preacher (Tim Ransom), asking the big question.
“If there is a God, why’d he take Sam (Madeleine McGraw)?”
When Brendan and Claire have conflicting memories of where a photograph of the entire family was taken, he takes his search for existential reality to that font of all that’s wise, good and factually-vetted for our protection — the Internet.
Before you know it, he’s wondering who the hell stole Curious George’s tail, what happened to the monocles on “The Monopoly Man” and just who or what is causing this mass mis-remembering that he sees people on the WWweb sharing.
Co-writers David Guy Levy and Steffen Schlachtenhaufen weave voices and clips of people of science like Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Abhishek Kothari debating reality, string theory and the like, and “Mandela Effect” guru Fiona Broome speculating on what might be going on. It’s very “JFK,” and almost convincing in positing that this is something serious people talk about, even if the most serious are only doing it as a thought experiment.
Once you grab onto the date of the Cern Supercollider going online and an infamous George W. Bush faux pas about Nelson Mandela being dead, you’re “into the multiverse,” without scores of (blurry) Spider-Men to guide you through it.
Look at all the links I’ve posted in this review. This is fascinating speculative science, even if it is science fiction.
The movie can’t quite wrestle the pathos it needs out of this search for a reality where their daughter DIDN’T die. Palladino (“Halt and Catch Fire,” “Boardwalk Empire”) is better at giving the couple’s loss the emotions it warrants. Hofheimer’s Brendan, like the viewer, is hunting for “alternate facts” to explain the “unreal” nature of the death of their daughter, too wrapped up in coding and research to let go.
I needed a little more paranoid prophet out of the scientist (Clarke Peters) Brendan consults. A bit more heat to the debates with the brother-in-law (Robin Lord Taylor) was in order, too.
The effects, because you know there are going to be effects simulating the breakdown of the “simulation,” are first rate — “Matrix” and “Tron” touches.
But the best one can say about “The Mandela Effect” is that it’s a fascinating, if heartless, failure, skimming the surface of the conspiracy, not doing justice to the tragedy even if it ensures that we never, ever watch “Looney Toons (Tunes)” the same way again.
MPA Rating: unrated, fisticuffs, sexual situations
Cast: Charlie Hofheimer Aleksa Palladino, Robin Lord Taylor and Clarke Peters
Credits: Directed by David Guy Levy, script by David Guy Levy, Steffen Schlachtenhaufen. A Gravitas Ventures release.
Running time 1:20