#2. Quantum Immortality
Movie protagonists tend to be improbably lucky. No one wants to shell out money for a Die Hard movie just to see Bruce Willis get killed five minutes in. That'd be super boring. Action movies are about one thing: watching a guy beat the odds and kill a bunch of dudes without getting killed himself. James Bond has made it through 23 movies despite facing odds that seemed improbable at best.
"The disease is B. Hepatitis B."
And it's not just the superhuman action heroes. In the sequence in Back to the Future in which Marty McFly first travels back in time, he is staring down certain death from a machine-gun-wielding Libyan terrorist, and then he finds himself in the sights of a farmer with a shotgun (the farmer manages to miss him three times at close range). It's almost like movies are about a bunch of people whose superpowers are just extraordinarily good luck.
As it happens, there's a thought experiment in quantum physics called quantum suicide that might explain why every one of those movies is illustrating how reality actually works. The theory arose when scientists were poking around inside the atom and noticed that certain particles appeared to move in two different directions at the same moment.
"If you keep pulling, we'll turn into hydrogen! Is that what you want?"
To understand why that should be impossible, imagine that you balanced a perfectly sharpened pencil on a tip occupied by one of these particles that spins left and right at the same moment. If the particle actually did move in both directions, the pencil wouldn't know whether to tip left or right. Or more specifically, it should tip in both directions at the same time. Now obviously, if you actually balanced the pencil in this way, you'd see the pencil tip in one of the two directions, because that's how reality works. What science hasn't been able to figure out is how reality chooses which of the two directions to make the pencil tip. The most interesting theory they've come up with states that reality doesn't choose, and instead branches off into separate parallel universes.
Now imagine if, instead of a pencil balanced on one of these particles, there are 10 of these particles connected to a contraption that fires a gun at your head if they move right and lets you live if they move left. After the first test, reality branches into two parallel universes, one in which you're alive and another where you're dead. After the second test, you're dead in three universes, still alive in one. After 10 tests, there are 999 parallel universes where a bunch of scientists are cleaning your brain matter off the wall behind you, and one universe where you're still alive. According to the "many worlds" theory, the scientists have a 99.9 percent chance of existing in one of the realities where they're about to have a lot of explaining to do. But since you no longer exist in any of those realities, from your point of view, you have a 100 percent chance of existing in the one universe where the gun never fired. You are guaranteed to continue living in one of the 1,000 universes that you just created, which is, of course, the one that you're going to be aware of.
In 999 universes, McClane was gunned down while picking glass out of his feet.
If you take the many worlds theory of quantum physics to its logical conclusion and apply it to the thousands of tiny particles bouncing around in the human brain, and in every object you encounter on a daily basis (or any gun that gets fired at you), you get what's known as quantum immortality. Basically, in any given situation in which it's theoretically conceivable that you survive, there is a timeline in which you actually survive. You're living in one of the infinite different versions of the world in which you survived. There are countless thousands of other universes in which you didn't survive, but you no longer exist in any of those. So the universe that you're aware of is one of an infinite number of universes in which you're just naturally, inexplicably luckier when it comes to not dying.
When we're watching an action movie, we might think that we're watching a protagonist slaloming through a bunch of explosions to an improbable happy ending, but it's just as accurate to say that we're watching the theory of quantum immortality illustrated over and over again. If there's even the remotest probability that the gun will jam, that's what will happen in the universe that the protagonist perceives. According to the many worlds theory, an action hero is the perfect metaphor for how we experience the world around us: He gets in a car wreck and just happens to be thrown clear. Bullets fly all around him, but none hit. Aliens attack, and crazy old Randy Quaid flies his crop duster into the mother ship. There's a nuclear explosion, and he jumps into a handy refrigerator. Regardless of the dangerous situation, the action hero will always survive. And we love watching action movies because the action hero's version of reality is the closest the movies come to our own version of reality, in which we keep getting insanely, improbably lucky.
Somewhere, a version of you has won the lottery, and that asshole won't give you a dime.
#1. The Allegory of the Cave
Lots of epic movie sagas have a scene where the main character discovers a whole other layer to his world that he never knew existed. Harry Potter discovers the wizarding world. Special Agent J in Men in Black discovers that aliens are totally real. Neo takes the red pill and is shown the Matrix. It's a common and wildly successful movie trope that can be traced back to one man.
Three thousand years ago, Plato created what he called the allegory of the cave, in which he described a group of men who had been chained up their entire lives facing the wall at the bottom of a cave (because it's not a classic thought experiment without a bunch of people being creepily mistreated). The only thing they ever see are shadows cast on the wall by people passing in front of fires farther up in the cave. Since this is all they know, Plato suggested that they would regard the shadows on the wall as reality, and would gauge intelligence based on who could guess which shape would pass in front of the wall next.
In movies like Men in Black, Harry Potter and The Matrix, the shadows on the cave wall are replaced by what we think of as daily life. Wealth, high test scores and sports victories seem like pointless diversions once you know what Neo, Harry and Agent J find out. Of course, that was totally Plato's point as well. Plato believed that most of us go through life with only an incidental acquaintance with certain byproducts and half-truths of existence, and what reality truly means.
"Yer a wizard, Harry. You never have to worry about math again."
In act two of the cave allegory (and act two of the aforementioned franchises, every movie about superheroes, the Star Wars trilogy or the Star Trek reboot), one of these mere mortals is freed from his chains to see the truth about existence. He has a tough time adjusting at first (think Will Smith quitting before returning to take the Men in Black oath), but soon he realizes that he can't go back to the version of the world he was stuck in.
Act three of the allegory, and of most of the hugely successful movies based on it, sees our newly enlightened former cave dweller return to the men at the bottom of the cave and try to explain the truth to them. Plato came to the conclusion that the men down there not only wouldn't understand what the hell he was talking about, but they would think that he was an idiot because he was no better at guessing what shadow would be cast on the wall next.
"Mark, would you please shut the hell up about these 'boobs'?"
The movies based on his allegory are usually all over the place on the question of how the masses react. Men in Black and Harry Potter are with Plato. People either won't believe you or they won't be able to deal with the truth, and they should be allowed to stay praying to shadow puppets. The Matrix is the one movie that insists on dragging everyone to the surface of the cave to show them the sky.
For a cool real-life example, a 17th century philosopher named William Molyneux wondered if someone blind from birth would be able to recognize familiar shapes on sight if their vision was restored. We actually have the technology to answer him now, and it turns out that the answer is nope, they sure can't. They have to relearn the world by sight and tie that in with the senses they already know, just like the Force.
One thing each franchise's creator probably agrees on is that they're glad that more people don't read old philosophers, since otherwise there's no way they'd be able to get away with this shit over and over again.
For more things we've learned from pop culture, check out The 7 Worst Lessons '80s Cartoons Taught Us about Drugs and The 4 Weirdest Lessons '80s Movies Really Wanted to Teach Us.