Virtual reality is a dividing subject that has half of the population excited and the other half droning on about how it is going to come and go, ‘just like 3D did’. Like it or not, the hype around Ready Player One is proof that virtual reality is captivating the public’s imagination. However, Ready Player One is adding to a rich history of virtual reality in cinema which has developed drastically as our technology has advanced. So we thought we’d take a look at some of the most wonderful, imaginative and craziest depictions of VR in film and how it will change our future…
It might look old to us now as one of an early examples of VR in movies, but Tron was way ahead of its time back in 1982 – both visually and imaginatively. In fact, Tron portrayed the mental experience of ‘Virtual Reality’ five years before the phrase itself was created. Following the story of Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) after he is digitalised and trapped inside the software programme, it is clear to see this early example of cinematic VR already predicts the technophobia that would grow in the future as our computers become more advanced. Flynn must battle his way out of the software by competing in a number of digital games. The hard work put into realising a script that was way ahead of the CGI available at the time is palpable, as the style of the feature is just as iconic today. In short, Tron began paving the way for utilising cinema to show how immersive our technology could become and how it may be harder to escape than we think.
The Lawnmower Man (1992)
The Lawnmower Man is often accredited with being the first film to introduce Virtual Reality to a wider audience. The film centres around scientist Dr Lawrence Angelo (Pierce Brosnan) who uses virtual reality therapy on a mentally-challenged gardener, Jobe (Jeff Fahey). As you do. Here VR is initially depicted as having a beneficial effect on Jobe as he becomes more intelligent and even strikes up a passionate relationship with a young, rich widow – which is perhaps the first and last time VR will be depicted as having an aphrodisiac effect on women. Soon, however, the darker concerns of immersive technology is explored as Jobe begins to have hallucinations and even demonstrate telepathic abilities. This spirals into the slightly absurd climax where Jobe, having murdered all his enemies using his telekinetic and pyro-kinetic abilities, abandons his body to become purely digitalised. Despite its ludicrous ending, The Lawnmower Man constructed a bold portrayal of the power virtual reality could have: it could enrich and/or destroy us.
Strange Days (1995)
As the 90s progressed VR became more and more prolific as advancing technology and AI began to pique the curiosity of the public conscious. Whilst Strange Days was a box office flop and received mixed reviews from critics, it has become a cult classic for its gritty mix of themes and imaginative technology. Strange Days began to imagine how virtual reality could one day affect our everyday lives and blur the boarders between our identities. This is accomplished through a fictional device called a SQUID, which records the user’s experience and allows others to relive their memories including physical sensations. The film follows protagonist Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) as he uses the SQUID disks to investigate the truth behind the murder of a prostitute. With the help of limo-driver Lornette (Angela Bassett), Nero follows a trail of VR clues which add an interesting element to this thriller. In fact, there are still suspiciously similar devices popping up in the Science Fiction of today * ahem, Black Mirror *. Whether Strange Days is remembered as a classic or a dud, it showed us how technology could play a crucial part in our lives rather than just providing an experience.
The Matrix (1999)
Virtual reality films don’t get more iconic and mind-blowing than the 1999 hit The Matrix, which has perhaps made the biggest impact of any VR movie in cinema. The effectiveness of The Matrix at illustrating the power a constructed reality may have to engulf us is achieved through the simple concept that the virtual reality is in fact the ‘reality’ we believe we are living in. In The Matrix, protagonist Neo (Keanu Reeves) awakens to find his life has been a virtual simulation and in reality he’s a biological power-cell for a world dominated by advanced robots. Throughout, The Matrix builds a terrifying argument for the dangers of immersive simulations and how it may subdue and weaken mankind – whilst simultaneously demonstrating that humans will cling desperately to reality as Neo and his friends are dragged through plenty of pain and horrible experiences in their quest to survive ‘for real’. It also begs a question which will only become more and more pertinent as VR develops and becomes more immersive: if VR gives you a better experience than reality, which world would you choose to live in? Red pill or blue?
eXistenZ was one of the first VR films to really embrace the attraction of VR as an extension of video games and a form of escapism. With a very alluring cast, eXistenz tells the story of a game designer (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who creates VR experiences that are transmitted directly to the player through ‘UmbyCords’ – a fleshy, adult umbilical cord… we’ll stick to the headsets, thanks. To try and explain the plot of eXistenZ proves tricky as the twists and turns make Inception look like an episode of Peppa Pig. However, eXistenZ does a great job of communicating both the seductive elements of VR as a form of escapism and the natural push that will inevitably come from humanity to stop it from pulling us in – here symbolized by the ‘realists’ that aim to destroy the games. What eXistenZ clearly imagines is that VR will blur the lines of reality and constructed reality on so many levels – even the audience won’t be able to keep up!
The Thirteenth Floor (1999)
1999, with the turn of the millennium and a new age approaching, was a great year for VR films with The Matrix, eXistenZ and The Thirteenth Floor all being released. This perhaps didn’t work out so well for The Thirteenth Floor, which is often overshadowed by The Matrix. Perhaps this is because it explores the same concept – the world we are introduced to and which our protagonist (Craig Bierko) lives in is, in fact, a simulation. However, The Thirteenth Floor takes this a step further, by visualizing thousands of simulations in which an AI becomes creative enough to create a virtual world itself. So, with a virtual world within a virtual world – The Thirteenth Floor succeeds in not only suggesting we could live inside a VR and not know it, but incorporates our technophobia surrounding AI by suggesting we could be AI and not know this either… confused yet? VR meets Inception is too much for our brains to handle, but despite its fairly low-key status compared to The Matrix, this film certainly deserves its place in the VR Hall of Fame.
So whether VR is going to destroy us, inform us, improve us or turn us into super-powered psychopaths, it seems film is continuing to enjoy the possibilities. Are there any VR movies you think we missed? Let us know in the comments below.