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The Mandela Effect: Quantum Physics, Video Games, and Conspiracy Theory

You are caught in a simulation; The Matrix is real. Our computer programming masters have created the reality you live in and on rare, specific occasions you can reference your own memory to find flaws in the code. By now you’ve probably come across something like this on the internet or on TV, including an X-Files episode, cluing you into the phenomena known as the Mandela Effect. The theories here range from ideas of our time reigning as humans having ended (and we’re now living in a futuristic fantasy world crafted in science fiction and enslaved by highly intelligent beings for some unknown diabolic purpose), time travel is real and the Mandela Effect is the proof, or that versions of ourselves die at random points in life and our consciousness lives on in alternate dimensions.

In case your robot overlords tricked you into not clicking on any of that clickbait, the Mandela Effect is a fun concept perverted by conspiracists and suggests small changes may have been made in our timelines. It’s called the Mandela Effect for Nelson Mandela, whom people came to believe died in an African prison sometime in the late ’80s to early ’90s. If you’re reading this now and racking your brain, thinking “yeah I kind of remember that” you’re not alone, even I have some recollection of a news report that did not happen. A quick google search will inform you Nelson Mandela did not die until December of 2013. The strangest thing about this is that it’s not just one or two people that remember vivid details about the event of his passing nearly 20 years prior.

Brendan points out the name Berenstain Bears to brother in law Matt
Is it Berenstein or Berenstain?

This doesn’t just end with the one-off of Mandela’s death either. Here’s a quick test: Is it Berenstein Bears or Berenstain Bears? Does the Monopoly Man have a monocle? Does Curious George have a tail? What is the Darth Vader “father” quote? When was Mother Teresa canonized a saint? Was that “Mirror, mirror on the wall” the Evil Queen said in Snow White? What was the name of that genie movie Sinbad was in? Is Chartreuse a lovely shade of pink? Febreze or Febreeze? (All examples and answers are from Kelly Bryant’s Reader’s Digest article)

Right about now you’re either checking the internet and having your mind rocked, or like Neo you’ve already taken the red pill and been down this rabbit hole. Honestly, I love the idea of it creatively speaking, but I think it’s just a glowing example of how faulty the human mind actually is. Like when you open the fridge and can’t find the orange juice even though it’s right in front of you, it’s not that it wasn’t in there your brain just couldn’t process the information to find it. Also, I now have a second container of orange juice behind the first container because of my stupid brain. More so, I would love to ask these questions to someone with amazing memory like Marilu Henner, who has Hyperthymesia, to see what she has to say regarding this phenomenon.

Well now that we’ve discussed the basic premise, we should probably get to the movie portion of this deep dive. The Mandela Effect film opts for a video game style approach, trying to explain the whole of theory by taking on every theory the writers heard. I’ll tell you now it’s an intriguing premise with mixed results. The setup of a rat running in a maze being likened to people voluntarily playing Pac-Man as relaxation catches your attention immediately. If you think about it in terms of the mazes we jump through in our daily life, then only finding entertainment and decompression in playing video games where we put our avatars through other types of mazes, it’s thought-provoking from the start.

A supercomputer glows from a cross section of perpendicular lines in an otherwise empty room.
The quantum supercomputer.

The plot of the film follows bereaving Brendan (Charlie Hofheimer) as he struggles to make sense of a world that no longer includes his daughter, Sam (Madeline McGraw). While fighting with his wife, Claire (Aleksa Palladino), about removing Sam’s personal items he stumbles across one of her Berenstain Bears books and takes note that it isn’t spelled Berenstein, the way he remembers it. This propels him into an internet blackhole of conspiracy theories and YouTube videos before he starts noticing changes to his personal memories, like the photos in his home.

The Mandela Effect tries hard to be in step with its audience, asking every question and attempting to ground the viewer with the obvious false memory narrative that our spiraling hero has to overcome in order to prove that reality is being manipulated. In Brendan’s case, he comes upon a corrupted video by Dr. Roland Fuchs (Clarke Peters), which strengthens Brendan’s resolve in the conspiracy and propels him towards the next piece of cheese to chase in the maze.

My biggest problem with The Mandela Effect is that for all its creativity its presentation is slightly dangerous. Brendan’s grief for the loss of his daughter is supposed to be the thing that he’s clinging to throughout the movie for his journey to feel any triumph, but the strength of his obsessive conviction is what plays more substantially in the foreground. As people attempt to tell Brendan that it’s all just his mind playing tricks on him, he pushes them aside because they’re obviously being repressed by the system that built them while his belief must be the correct one. When Brendan is proven right it seems more like an act of faith brought him to his results instead of his struggle to let go of his daughter.

Brendan and Dr. Fuchs stand outdoors in a campus setting talking with one another. Dr. Fuchs has a concerned look on his face.
Brendan meets with Dr. Fuchs to discuss his simulation theory

I say it’s dangerous because this is a form of cult-like behavior. Brendan becomes so indoctrinated by the theory that he succumbs to the allure instead of trusting those around him that care for him. The fact that the movie continues to prove Brendan’s more volatile thoughts true, which has the propensity to rile up those in league with Brendan’s thinking—it’s like saying “I’m not wrong, the whole world is.” This isn’t to say I haven’t thought deeply into the concept, but the fact is that if the concept were correct what could you even do about it? This is the reality you have and like it or not trying to stop a glitchy update could end all life contained in a system.

Though news circulated earlier this year saying that someday there may be a way to cross into other realities, stemming from news that ghost particles from another reality where time runs backward were found in Antarctica, the news was largely proven false. Geraint Lewis says in an article on CNET, “Whilst parallel universes sound exciting and sexy when discussing the [Antarctic Impulsive Transient Antenna] signal, alternative ideas are still on the table.” Though Lewis suggests the theory has the slim chance of being correct, he also suggests there’s a lot of evidence to imply the opposite. An alternate world certainly sounded appealing to many looking to escape 2020, maybe these particles will yield findings beyond our wildest dreams. At least the genuine science is fun to think about.

Brendan and Fuchs sit to discuss Brendan’s accusations about the world. Though Fuchs is standoffish at first, he (rather quickly) comes around to granting Brandon’s theory gravitas. When Brendan begins explaining video game code to Fuchs, he interjects that the phenomena Brendan is experiencing is likely the cause of some critical patch update that he is simply not adjusting correctly. The philosophy of the film here is sound in its reference to coding a game, saying that buildings without anyone inside them would use less processing power because the simulation saves resources by not processing the design inside the structure. It follows that up with the old “If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it even make a sound?” saying, which is a fantastic way of comparing the concepts. The biggest problem in all this philosophy is that they never think that crashing the system may wipe out data or rather, what happens if the creator is out of quarters on the celestial Pac-Man machine?

I guess what I’m saying is that even though the logic is fundamentally sound this one example seems to prove the rule meaning that since we have the Star Trek-like simple explanation of the “if a tree falls in the forest” idea, Brendan is able to relate it to Fuchs simulation theory quickly and fervently believes the one logical connection proves this theory. Here The Mandela Effect finally decides to pick a direction after taking the scientific approach of asking so many questions. And where the viewer had come to expect that, it fails the audience now by not having Brendan or Fuchs combat the theory. Brendan opts to believe in simulation theory without more data or further investigation, which is akin to conspiracy theorists, but disappointing for a film that grounded itself with scientific discovery up until this point.

Brendan now considers this one (unproven) idea to give substance to his theory and that that is just enough to go on, but he never tries to contrast his thinking on how unoccupied space saves processing power. I suppose if we all lived in a supercomputer processing a sim this big it would constantly be looking for ways to save power, but the film doesn’t attempt to account for how. A lot of our world runs around the clock and that has only been increasing, so what is the threshold for this power save mode? For example, if we consider 2020 as a crash or a system operating in safe mode and our reality was looking to save power while we await some all-powerful administrator’s update, I’d rationally play devil’s advocate with myself and deconstruct that theory arguing that it may take more processing power to activate 500 homes instead of a single office building.

Brendan drives his car through a nighttime scene on a computer generated blue grid
Brendan begins to see the world as a game design.

In a very Tron like sequence we’re offered some theoretical quantum physics that again can be misconstrued into a dangerous viewpoint from a conspiracy theory aspect. A man on the radio says that there’s experiments that back up Robert Lanza’s biocentrism theory, “a particle does not exist until it is observed.” For Brendan, running on pure belief without the backup of his wife or the confidant he finds in her brother (Robin Lord Taylor), it could be considered that he finds delusions of grandeur as his psychosis could lead him to see himself as this observer and, with that outlook in mind, consider that he is the only true person that exists. When you’re making a movie about a conspiracy theory through the lens of video games, what is there to stop someone in this reality from considering all others NPCs (Non-Player Characters)? I’m trying to stay out of making multiple comparisons to The Matrix, but the fact is the ideas in both are quite similar. The Matrix certainly had the budget to do it better, so The Mandela Effect sees its version of Neo in Brendan take the blue pill to become the Charlie Day corkboard conspiracy GIF caricature of the classic character.

Here is where the movie reaches an intellectual impasse: instead of using all these theories in Biocentrism, Hawking’s Top-Down Theory, and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle to create something malleable for its viewers, The Mandela Effect has you watch new glitches happen in Brendan’s home life that make it act more like a mafia movie where the computer is trying to pay Brendan off to stop his search. Through all the glitches and changes, and given the Biocentrism introduction, it could be theorized that Brendan made those changes by observing the particles. It’s shrewd in terms of the science for sure, but it makes about as much sense as a supercomputer buying Brendan off instead of just snuffing him out of existence and solving the problem, like it does to Dr. Fuchs.

I think a brilliantly underrated portion of the film is the family plaster painting sequence. It adds a lot of nuance without ever saying what’s actually happening. Brendan is basically asked to decide between Claire and Sam, to stay in one reality or the other. The computer cannot reconcile Brendan wanting to bridge realities so Brendan decides to load a virus that will overload the system with observable quantum particles that will drain the system’s resources, again without asking the question, what happens if it doesn’t reboot? Things get funky in the final moments, but unfortunately the fun only happens in the last five minutes of the film.

Brendan runs over a bridge on foot where a tree shows purple foliage as cars pass by on the road
Brendan runs over a bridge where a glitching tree changes to purple leaves

I would have preferred to have been played with in the film more. The Mandela Effect does have its moments, mostly in its philosophical approach and with some of those questions I posed at the beginning, but why not play with things and begin to show the bad work of the latest patch install? Why not change a dress or chair color while the camera pans away momentarily and see if the audience notices? Or focus on an item and move it around the house in the movie? Where this is a movie about glitches like in gaming it would have been fun to see more low-level hiccups before the reset button gets pressed.

The art direction is exquisitely weird as the faces of lovers kissing begin melting into one another, a woman gets off the bus while it’s still moving, trees change colors, night shifts into day, things begin to disappear as the moon respawns and crashes into itself. This was what we wanted for this whole film, but I think The Mandela Effect fails by trying to do too much in the wrong areas. It has some great moments and the ending has stuck with me for the sheer uniqueness.

Like I said the result of the film is a bit lackluster, the final scenes are really imaginative and inventive but there’s too much conspiracy and not enough fun in The Mandela Effect. I will give credit to Robin Lord Taylor and Clarke Peters for making their brief roles in the film really stand out and as far as the writing goes it was a solid effort for Steffen Schlachtenhaufen and director David Guy Levy, especially in trying to bring the science to the fiction. The pieces for the film to come together are there, but it gets bogged down in the obsessiveness of conspiracy and sort of loses its way. Perhaps the filmmakers got it right in some other reality and with the discoveries in quantum physics lately, maybe we’ll get to see that version someday.

The Mandela Effect is now streaming on Hulu, Prime Video, and free with ads on Vudu.

Sean Parker

Written by Sean Parker

Sean lives just outside of Boston. He loves great concerts, all types of movies, video games, and all things nerd culture.

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