Deja Vu: Famous Movies with Doppelgangers

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Some films feature two characters which are very similar, if not identical, in appearance. Some of these characters are twins, evil alternatives, or freaky occurrences. Join us as we take a look at some of the most famous examples. 

Deja vu is the experience of familiarity in an unexpected way. In thrillers and horror films, deja vu can convey an unsettling feeling to the audience. Characters often see or experience something which brings back bad memories. It plays off of the idea of being comfortable in your own skin. Some films go as far as making the main character themselves the focus of the deja vu. 

I’m talking about evil twins, of course. Or, well, even if they aren’t “evil” or actually twins they are somehow unfamiliar to the main character and the audience. They may be clones, unknown twins, or crossovers from some sort of freaky alternate universe. The most famous ones are from films where the visual resemblance of these two or more characters is a major focus of the plot. They are not always horror films, but they often have an unsettling premise. In all cases, it is the same actor(s) portraying both the main character(s) and the unsettling doppelganger(s). 

This is a look at ten of the most famous (and unsettling) examples of these strange character deja vus. (WARNING – THIS ARTICLE DOES DISCUSS SOME SPOILERS!)


Obsession (1976)

The Premise: Michael Courtland is a husband and father whose wife, Elizabeth, and daughter, Amy, have been kidnapped. He follows the Police’s recommendation to give the kidnappers fake money, but the plan goes wrong and both the kidnappers and his family end up dying in the resulting chase. Years later, Michael travels to Italy and meets Sandra Portinari, a woman who reminds him of his late wife. They fall in love and eventually agree to marry. But on their wedding night, Sandra is kidnapped with the same ransom letter as Michael found when Elizabeth and Amy first went missing… 

The Doppelganger: Sandra Portinari who appears to be very similar to Courtland’s wife, Elizabeth.

The Actor: Geneviève Bujold

Twin, Clone, or Other? Other. SPOILER – Sandra is actually Courtland’s daughter. She actually survived the first kidnapping and was raised for the purpose of tricking Courtland into another kidnapping. This was all arranged by Courtland’s business partner, who had been scheming all along of a way to take full control of Courtland’s business.  


The Man in the Iron Mask (1998)

The Premise: In 17th Century France, the country is nearly driven to ruin by the reckless young King Louis XIV. Louis’ enemies are the Jesuits, who hatch a plan to save France by replacing Louis with his little-known twin brother. They call on the retired Three Musketeers to rescue the brother, Phillipe from banishment. They work to train Phillipe to act and behave like his brother so that no one will know the difference when they swap them out.

 

The Doppelganger: Phillipe aka. the man in the iron mask. Imprisoned and cared for by a mute so that his true identity would never be revealed. 

The Actor: Leonardo DiCaprio

Twin, Clone, or Other? Twin. Phillipe was originally sent away by his father to be raised without knowing who he actually was so as to prevent any royal struggles. However, when King Louis finds out about his long lost brother, he has him thrown into prison to protect his power.   


Dead Ringers (1988)

The Premise: Beverly and Elliot Mantle are two identical twins who own a gynecology practice. One twin (Elliot) is more outgoing and uses his talents to seduce women. When Elliot tires of a woman, he lets his brother pretend to be him in order to have sex with them. When a woman falls for Beverly, and vice versa, Elliot becomes jealous and pretends to be Beverly. This creates a feud between the two brothers and sends Beverly into a spiral of self-destructive behavior. 

The Doppelganger: Beverly/Elliot Mantle

The Actor: Jeremy Irons

Twin, Clone, or Other? Twin, but in a play off of the common trope, one twin is not necessarily any more evil than the other. They rely on each other – many ways functioning like a single entity. When a woman comes between them, it ultimately leads to their undoing because they can’t function apart. 


Cloud Atlas (2012)

The Premise: A series of somewhat interconnected stories taking place during different time periods from the 19th to the 24th century. In each story, the main character is fighting back against some sort of injustice  – slavery, sexuality taboos, corruption. The same actors are used for different roles in each story. 

The Doppelganger: Almost the entire cast. Hanks, for example, plays an evil doctor in the first story, and a tribesman in the last one. 

The Actor(s): Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Sturgess, Hugo Weaving, Hugh Grant, James D’Arcy, Ben Whisaw, Susan Sarandon, among others.

Twin, Clone, or Other? Other. The choice to use the same actors for different roles in each story is mostly a creative decision by the filmmakers (it is not mentioned in the book on which the film is based). However, one could argue the filmmakers are trying to make a point about human nature and our history as a species. In each story the same actor plays mostly the same role – the savior, the enabler, the establishment, the corruption. These attributes are common in all walks of life. But they also change based on what happens to themselves and others – proof that we can each make a difference and change the fortunes of ourselves and others. 


Moon (2009)

The Premise: Sam Bell works alone at a lunar base which extracts minerals from the surface of the moon to be sent back to Earth. Sam has a three year contract which is almost up and is looking forward to his return to his wife and new child. He begins having hallucinations and in distress causes an accident. When he wakes up he returns to the site of the accident and finds an injured version of himself.

The Doppelganger: Sam Bell

The Actor: Sam Rockwell

Twin, Clone, or Other? Clone. Sam is a clone manufactured by Lunar Industries to work the harvester operation. The 3-year contract was a way to prevent the clone from ever learning the truth – at the end of the three years the clone was destroyed and replaced with another. 


Enemy (2013)

The Premise: Adam Bell is a college professor who watches a video with an actor named Anthony who seems to look a lot like him. Adam becomes obsessed with Anthony, and begins to stalk him. At one point in time, he tries to call Anthony but Anthony’s wife picks up. She gets suspicious when Adam sounds exactly like Anthony but keeps telling her he isn’t. She tracks him down and convinces Anthony to meet with him. When they meet they find out they are exactly the same. Anthony plans to use this to his advantage, forcing Adam to fool his wife so he can have an affair. 

The Doppelganger: Anthony Claire

The Actor: Jake Gyllenhaal

Twin, Clone, or Other? Other. The reason the two characters are the same in appearance is never explained, leaving the interpretation up to the viewer. Some have suggested that Anthony and Adam are the same person struggling with a life they have and a life they want. Others have suggested that the film is a statement about how the world around us can change without us even noticing. 


Adaptation (2002)

The Premise: A fictional account of writer Charlie Kauffman’s attempt to write a movie script based on a novel (The Orchid Thief). In the film, Charlie has an identical twin brother. The brother, Donald, is not a writer, but begins to express interest. Meanwhile, Charlie has writers block and ends up seeking Donald’s help to complete his work. With Donald’s involvement, the two brothers unearth a secret about the writer of the book they are trying to adapt, which puts them both in danger. 

The Doppelganger: Charlie / Donald Kaufman

The Actor: Nicolas Cage

Twin, Clone, or Other? Twin. The idea of a fictitious twin is an interesting one because it brings up the question of whether or not the character of Donald is real or just part of Charlie’s personality. The real life Kauffman later explained that this was the only way he could think of  adapting the novel into a film (by documenting his challenges in a creative way). 


Face/Off (1997) 

The Premise: FBI Agent Sean Archer captures terrorist Castor Troy. Troy reveals a bomb is planted in the city but won’t reveal its location before he is knocked into a coma. Archer undergoes a controversial surgery to take Troy’s appearance and voice, and then imprisons himself in order to try and convince Troy’s accomplice to reveal the bomb’s location. In the meantime, Troy wakes from his coma and takes revenge on Archer by taking Archer’s appearance and life.  

The Doppelganger: Sean Archer / Castor Troy

The Actor: John Travolta / Nicolas Cage

Twin, Clone, or Other? Other. Unlike all of the other doppelgangers on this list, these two never really have an interaction on screen together when they are both appearing as one character. But in many ways, they become evil twins for each other – the audience may see two different people, but to each of the characters, the person trying to kill them appears as themselves.  


Us (2019)

The Premise: The Wilson family travel to Santa Cruz for vacation. The mother/wife Adelaide had a traumatic experience there as a child when she found a doppelganger of herself in a hall of mirrors. Adelaide tries to control her discomfort of being there, but things take a turn for the worse when menacing people begin to show up. The Wilson family finds out they all have doppelgangers who live underground and experience pain/terror when their above-world counterparts experience love and happiness. These doppelgangers have risen to try and sever the link with their counterparts. 

The Doppelganger: Sinister versions of everyone. 

The Actor: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, others

Twin, Clone, or Other? Other. They are like evil twins, but everyone seems to have one. They are also kind of like clones, duplicates of everyone with a purpose to suffer. Ultimately they are a representation of the people in the world who we tend to forget about – people just like us who suffer as we prosper. 


The Prestige (2006)

The Premise: When magician Robert Angier’s wife is killed performing a dangerous magic trick, he blames the man who was performing along with her, Alfred Borden. This begins a bitter rivalry between the two magicians, forcing them to partake in dirty tricks to try and ruin each other. When Borden performs a trick which Angier cannot figure out how to replicate himself, Angier essentially risks everything for a chance to outdo him one final time. 

The Doppelganger: SPOILER – Alfred Borden/Fallon 

The Actor: Christian Bale

Twin, Clone, or Other? Twin. Borden’s impossible magic trick is only possible because he has a secret identical twin. The two brothers hide the fact that they are twins from everyone, including Alfred’s wife, so as not to reveal the truth behind their magic trick, which would ruin their credibility. 


What other movie character doppelgangers come to mind?