From Cubism to ‘The Matrix’: representing the 4th dimension

In Mécanique Analytique (1788) Lagrange wrote that mechanics can be understood as operating in four dimensions: three dimensions of space, plus time. By 1880 Charles Howard Hinton had given the name to ‘the tesseract’, and in 1908 Hermann Minkowski published a paper that consolidated the role of time as the fourth dimension of ‘space-time’ — the foundation for Einstein’s theories of special and general relativity.

Reflecting these scientific theories, a number of modernist art movements sprung up in the early 20th Century — Cubism, Futurism, Vorticism — representing a new and exciting vision of the world. The old order had, as they viewed it, been destroyed by ‘The Great War’, and had been replaced by new, often revolutionary, –ism’s. The new world required a new aesthetic. They no longer saw the world from the ‘naturalistic’ perspective of a traditional Renaissance painting, which mimicked a person’s normal vision. Instead, they created an artistic interpretation of reality as seen through a 4th dimensional lens — a place where space and time was one, and the hectic, concurrent buzz of the modern world could be ‘realistically’ depicted; a place where the mishmash of mental experience and sense perceptions included the multifaceted and multidimensional experience of the modern 1930s world. Blurred photos taken at 1/8th of a second showed that the world was not made up of static moments, but continuous movement, and the human experience of that movement in space and time — the speed of modern transport systems, and the abundance of information being communicated through the mass media. Even in the 1930s there was a perception that there was an overwhelming amount of information, too much to process, and this excess spilled over into collages and mixed media artworks. In Cubist art the conventional perspective became fragmented into a multiplicity of viewpoints, reflections, impossible perspectives, distortions of space, and time — an amalgamation of interpreted experience. In Futurism that experience was manifested in blur, in Cubism by a geometrically fragmented aesthetic, almost as if light had been separated into mathematics. Space, and the experience of it in time, had never been portrayed like this before.

For screenplay writers the big question was not how to represent the 4th dimension as an aesthetic, so much as, what story could they extract from it? Monsters, aliens — intriguing new worlds of storytelling material. The premise of ‘other worlds’ is reflected in the popular parallel worlds of science fiction. The existence of these worlds, independent of one another, but existing simultaneously, caused a problem: how did people get from this dimension to the next?

In The Matrix the divide between the two worlds is the difference between a simulated computer experience of reality, created by machines to enslave humanity, and actual reality. The only giveaway being the occasional errant code. The ‘doorway’ between the worlds is developing a special consciousness, and literally waking up from the simulation. Similarly, in Vanilla Sky what appears to be reality is a simulation designed to keep the mind of people in suspended animation active. The ‘glitch’ comes when the subconscious mind works out that something is uncannily wrong with their simulated reality. In these stories reality is a kind of illusion.

The passage between dimensions (or storytelling worlds) occurs through a portal of some kind: in Interstellar (2014) it’s a tesseract located deep in space; in Poltergeist (1982) an apparently ordinary house harbours creepy paranormal activity, which appears through the walls, and out of the static signal of a television set; and in Stranger Things a monster from the ‘Upside-Down’ — a parallel, but dark, universe filled with destruction and horrific monsters — literally bursts through the walls.

In Source Code (2011) the protagonist is able to travel into another dimension through a computer simulation generated from his comatose memories. In The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005) a group of children enter the fantastic world of Narnia, through a magical wardrobe. And an alien portal resembling an ancient Egyptian artefact provides a conduit between dimensions in Stargate (1994). The Doctor in Dr Who travels between dimensions using the Tardis, a time travel machine disguised as a Police phone box. In The Twilight Zone, in an episode called The Parallel (1963) a spaceman blacks out and wakes up in an ‘uncanny’ parallel universe — it’s much like the old one he’s familiar with, but not quite. In 2001 (1968) a man travels into another dimension via a mysterious alien monolith.

The 4th dimension, and any additional dimensions, for that matter, can be visualised through: the Cubist aesthetic, mathematical forms (such as the tesseract in Interstellar, and mysterious rain-like computer code in The Matrix), time and space can be distorted, decontextualised through the frozen moment of ‘bullet time’, creatures bursting through walls, mirrors reflecting other worlds, wormholes in space, amazing time travelling devices, waking up in ‘uncanny’ worlds, passing through magical doorways… and even wardrobes. The principle is the same — other dimensions exist, and they are hidden within this one, unlocked by a secret means of travelling between them. These new dimensions offer new worlds of possibility and opportunity, providing storytellers with new contexts, new rules, new environments where danger may lurk, and discoveries made, changing our perception of the current reality.