Where are all the good alternate history movies?

Illustration for article titled Where are all the good alternate history movies?

We've got tons of alternate history books, comics, and video games, and yet we have so few committed alt-history motion pictures. On this Sunday's Great Moments in Alternate History, we're going to the movies!


Before we explore the above questions, I should take a moment to explore the state of alternate history cinema. Excluding films that just explore alternate timelines briefly - like Back to the Future II - or films that are technically alternate history but don't deal with it much - like District 9 or Southland Tales - we're left with just a handful of "true" alternate history movies.

Illustration for article titled Where are all the good alternate history movies?

Foremost among these film's is 1966's It Happened Here by directors Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo. The film is set in a universe where Germany succeeded in invading England in 1940. In a similar vein there's the 1994 HBO Movie Fatherland (based on the Robert Harris book) where Germany won WWII. Similar alternate history tropes are explored in C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America (a mockumentary directed by Kevin Willmott where the South won the Civil War) and Robert Stone's World War III where, well, where there's a World War III.

There lack of few alternate history films can be chalked up to the complexity of alternate reality fiction as a genre. A large amount of the appeal of this genre comes from the interplay between our history and the alternate timeline. But of course, this requires some knowledge of the actual events — outside of the basic scenarios, alternate history can quickly become too specialized or esoteric for a mass audience. While everyone might be curious what would have happened if Hitler won WWII, it's much harder to market a film about the alternate history of The French and Indian war.

Still, it's not entirely fair to simply blame box office receipts and your average moviegoer for the lack of alternate history films. Alternate history stories are, in a sense, just not "movie shaped." Often the story — like history itself — centers on a sprawling, global cast of characters over a fairly prolonged period of time. On the other hand, movies tend to follow a lead character on a specific journey that covers a fairly limited time frame.

Illustration for article titled Where are all the good alternate history movies?

Of course, we can console ourselves that some of the outlier alternate history films are some classic cult movies. Even if we've got barely a half dozen "true" alternate history films, we've still got the Soviet invasion of Red Dawn and the nuclear wasteland of Six String Samurai.

If that isn't enough, we've also seen some evidence that cinema is finally figuring out its own unique take on alternate history. Nothing So Strange, directed by Brian Flemming, tells the tale of the assassination of Bill Gates in 1999 and the subsequent investigation into his death. While the film is another history mockumentary, the filmmakers took several unusual steps to get footage, such as staging scenes at real events and improvising interviews based on false documents created for the film. The result is a movie that feels more like footage recovered from another history than a proper alternate history film.

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I'm guessing part of the reason such films are so simplistic is because, as you point out, people receive such poor educations in history. More than this, though, most history curricula in high schools (and even some in college) tend to avoid the larger question of "What do we mean by the term 'history?'" and so films which depend to a large extent on tropes of history tend to go for simplistic, "This is the series of events that happens when we switch one prior event," rather than exploring more complex models of historical knowledge. So, they take history for granted as a straight-forward, given starting point, rather than as a complex, internally conflicted discursive field, and so the resulting films are pretty much as schematic as one might expect.