When it comes to alternate realities, popular entertainment offers two familiar paths one can travel.
Some science-fiction dive headfirst into explaining branching timelines and multiverses, while others keep the mechanics of their alternate realities vague and simple. From Doctor Who‘s adventures through time and relative dimensions in space, to the branching timelines of the Star Trek franchise, to the multiverse-expanding shenanigans of Loki, deep-in-the-weeds sci-fi about alternate realities is well-established in modern pop culture.
On the other hand, more subtle approaches to this subject stop short of suggesting that, for example, a multiverse war is coming if various timelines intersect. The most famous example of a “soft” sci-fi alternate-universe story is 1998’s Sliding Doors, a movie that takes place across two timelines, with merely a sliver of suggestive crossover at the end. But you’ve probably seen Sliding Doors, right?
If you’re looking for a different kind of multiverse tale, and you need a break from the dizzying, tangled implications of the TVA and Loki, you couldn’t do better than the 2014 indie The One I Love.
Here’s why you should check out this 2014 indie flick now that it’s streaming.
Ostensibly, The One I Love begins as a movie about couple’s therapy. Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elisabeth Moss) are getting advice from a therapist (Ted Danson) about how to put some pep back in their marriage. To that end, they’re sent to a secluded cottage to work out their issues. And from that point, things rapidly get weird.
As directed by Charlie McDowell, the film gradually reveals duplicates of Ethan and Sophie, who are essentially slightly more charming versions of the couple. The One I Love suggests at some point that Danson’s therapist is manipulating all of this and has in fact brought other versions of Sophie and Ethan to this exact spot. But the movie stops short of saying these “variants” of Ethan and Sophie are clones or robots. Some might say you have to settle on the idea that they’re from some other timeline or dimension.
That said, The One I Love is an indie comedy more in the vein of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and with even less “world-building.” We don’t know the exact nature of Ethan and Sophie’s variants, because the film isn’t focused on unlocking that mystery. Like the better moments of Loki, the story of The One I Love doesn’t meditate on the how of the high-concept premise, but rather on what meeting your own variant might mean emotionally, and how that encounter might play out for regular people.
In this way, The One I Love is kind of like Loki episode 5 — “Journey Into Mystery” — if it was more about people talking through their feelings with myriad versions of themselves, rather than trying to fight a purple-cloud monster made out of space-time energy. Loki uses the sci-fi metaphor of “talking to yourself” as the emotional subtext to drive its adventure story. But The One I Love reverses this process. The subtext of Loki becomes the primary context of The One I Love, and the implications of its doubles in terms of any “rules” governing its world are less important than what’s going on with the interior lives of its characters.
This is a long-winded way of saying The One I Love is a kitchen-sink drama, employing doppelgängers, variants, and possible alternate timelines to tell a fractured story about human nature.
Arguably, Loki does this too, especially when it reveals that all the people who work for the TVA are also variants. But because most of those characters never meet their other selves, there’s not much emotional exploration to be found in that series. Loki scratches the surface of what it would actually mean to meet another version of yourself, but it never dives all the way in.
To say it another way, The One I Love presupposes Loki had to live with Alligator Loki for two full hours and work out their differences. And for that reason alone, you should give it a watch. The One I Love is perhaps the most underrated soft sci-fi film of all time; the second it’s over, you’ll want to watch it again.
The One I Love is streaming totally for free (with ads) on VUDU.