Director/Teleplay – Christopher Leone, Story – Laura Harkcom & Christopher Leone, Photography – Bryce Fortner, Music – Corey Allen Jackson, Visual Effects Supervisors – Dag Luther Gooch & Thomas Verrette, Production Design – Grayson Wills. Production Company – Zero Day Fox.
Mark Hapka (Ronan Carver), Jessica Rothe (Beatrix Carver), Eric Jungmann (Harold Smith), Constance Wu (Polly), Michael Monks (Tinker), Yorgo Constantine (Alex Carver), Davi Jay (Captain Stone)
Ronan Carver receives a garbled phone message from his father asking him to return home. At the same time, so does his sister Beatrix. They cannot find their father except for a bag left in the trunk of the car that contains a strange object and a note telling them to bring it to a downtown building. Accompanied by neighbour Harold Smith, they head to the building. There they meet a strange girl Polly who tells them the building is a machine that moves between parallel universes every 36 hours. Disbelieving her, they exit the building to find themselves in one of these universes where much of the world has been destroyed by nuclear war. Captured by local warlords, the crazed Tinker holds their father responsible for the destruction that killed his family and tries to set off a nuclear device to destroy the building. They narrowly escape into another universe that is more technologically advanced than this. There the others look up their counterparts but Ronan discovers he no longer exists. Followed by Tinker, still intent on destroying the building, they attempt to penetrate its mysteries and find the whereabouts of their father.
The parallel world/alternate history theme has had a mixed success on screen. Pure alternate history efforts have been sporadic, mostly centred around the Nazi Rule theme – see the likes of It Happened Here (1965), Fatherland (1994) and tv’s The Man in the High Castle (2015-0) and SS-GB (2017). With the exception of the brilliant CSA: Confederate States of America (2004) set in an alternate history where the North lost the American Civil War, most other efforts can be considered more alternate personal timeline stories (concerned with different versions of existing characters rather than overall societal changes) as in the likes of Back to the Future Part II (1989), Sliding Doors (1998) and The Butterfly Effect (2004). There has also been the parallel world hopping theme – scenarios in which protagonists move between different alternate realities – as seen in the mostly effective Crossworlds (1996), the disappointing The One (2001) and the tv series Sliders (1995-2000), which let all of its potential slip through its fingers. (I have a more detailed essay on the topic here at Alternate History Films).
Parallels was originally developed as a tv pilot by Fox Studio but this was cancelled and converted into a film released to Netflix. So far there have been no further plans for it as a tv series. It is the first full-length film for Christopher Leone who has experience writing, directing and producing various other tv series. Perhaps the most notable of these is his writing The Lost Room (2006), a fascinating mini-series about a cryptic hotel room that contained objects with strange powers.
Fairly soon in, Parallels starts to impress with its adept use of the concept and above average writing. It gives the impression of being what Sliders should have been before it gave in to lazily constructed Society of the Week scenarios. The protagonists are quickly plunged through a puzzling set-up and then into a series of alternate universes – the first where much of the world has been devastated by nuclear war, the second a more technologically advanced version of this – where there are fascinating permutations on what has happened to their selves in this timeline and a constant series of twists. The scenarios are surprisingly well thought out – I loved the little speech that Michael Monks has where he is demonstrating the gun that can shoot different types of bullets, some of the pieces of tech in the futuristic world or when the characters enter into their other selves’ apartments.
The film also comes with a great deal of central back mystery and intrigue – the obvious heritage of having been shot as a tv pilot. These prove rather fascinating – what is the building and who are its builders that are cryptically referred to? What is on the sixth floor and above? What is the Core object their father left them? For that matter, who exactly are their parents? Not to mention, who is one of the characters that we see multiple versions of? These are questions that a good show would have built out into a strong ongoing mystery in the form adopted by most series post-Lost (2004-10) and I have a feeling had Parallels gone to series these would have proven fascinating to see unfold. It is a genuine shame that this is all that we get to see of it.