Like the laserdisc, virtual reality was almost over as soon as it began, but that hasn’t stopped it becoming one of our most reliable sci-fi institutions.
The virtual reality movies that broke new philosophical ground aren’t necessarily the best films of the genre, so consider the following a completist’s guide…
The Matrix (1999)
The godfather of VR films, borne out of inspirations that crossed cultures and genres from comic books and manga to the work of Baudrillard and Huxley.
As well as raising the bar for action and sci-fi, the Wachowksi Brothers’ vision of humanity enslaved as a power source for artificially intelligent robot overlords was the perfect metaphor for modern capitalism. Doesn’t the rat race of commuting and work feel a bit like you’re plugged into a life-sapping machine you can’t disengage from’
Why it counts: Seamlessly blended centuries-old philosophical questions with effortless action movie cool.
The Thirteenth Floor (1999)
Its release overshadowed by the Matrix juggernaut, this quieter, more theoretical treatise on the nature of reality starts from the opposite direction, depicting the hordes who believe they live ion the real world when they’re little more than elaborate computer programs themselves.
It’s hard to talk about without giving away the sucker punch spoiler. Suffice it to say that we shouldn’t dismiss the feeling that sometimes life feels too good (or too lousy) to be true.
Why it counts: When you return to the real world after dabbling in the virtual, what makes you so sure it’s not just another level of the game’
Open Your Eyes (1997)
With no flashy special effects, bullet time or blinking circuit boards, the best way to approach this film is with no forewarning — don’t read any reviews or search for spoilers online.
When rich, handsome playboy César is disfigured in a car crash courtesy of a psychotic former lover, his life starts to fall apart. Just when he hits rock bottom, the beautiful girl he’s in love with comes to him as if in a dream (your first clue about what’s really going on) to tell him she loves him. Remade faithfully/pointlessly with Tom Cruise in 2000.
Why it counts: Does the absence of mecha-warriors, Taoist philosophy or karate make you any more certain the world you live in is real’
Only producer Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino) knows S1m0ne (Simluation One) doesn’t really exist. But he’s desperate for a hit so he unleashes the preternaturally talented and beautiful singer/model/actress (actually an artificially intelligent computer hologram) on the world and everyone wants a piece of her.
So when S1m0ne becomes a noose around Taransky’s neck and he makes a symbolic gesture of cutting her adrift, his life becomes a Geordian knot of defending his actions against a person who isn’t even real.
Why it counts: Kiwi director Andrew Niccol effortlessly captured the zeitgeist surrounding both digital synthespians and our obsession with airbrushed, stage-managed celebrity.
The idea of living in a simulated reality predates the digital age, but Disney’s 1982 action adventure taped into the then-burgeoning computer game scene to bring it thrillingly to life. After all, the only thing cooler than playing it was living it…
Despite initial box office indifference Tron was the first mainstream film to ask if the human consciousness could be rendered in a software-generated world with all the possibilities for physics-defying gameplay we saw on screen.
Why it counts: It bought ages-old ideas of the dream world into the computer age for the generation who’d grow up with the tool to make it possible.
Strange Days (1995)
Plenty of sci-fi has the idea right but the timing wrong. Today, technologies as ham-fisted and immature as teledildonics and as all-conquering as 3D cinema are inching us ever closer towards an entertainment experience where we can’t tell the fiction from the real world.
So Kathryn (The Hurt Locker) Bigelow’s mystery thriller is looking more plausible as hustler Ralph Fiennes hawks small discs containing other people’s memories that immerse the user in a totally pre-recorded sensory experience. As he promises us, it’s not just about watching it, it’s about feeling it.
Why it counts: ‘Dystopia’, ‘Enslavement’? Maybe, but one day we’re going to escape into virtual experiences quite willingly when we see fit — like most technologies, expect porn to lead the way.
If you’re old enough to remember Pong or Asteroids you’re probably still amazed by the realism of today’s PC and console games. If you’ve grown up in the modern gaming era, the possibility of controlling real characters is probably only a few logical steps away. No more polygons or system crashes — just real flesh, blood and bullets.
Directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor’s action romp has a lot to say about the ownership of convicts like John Tillman (Gerard Butler) as Kable in the hit game Slayers. His wife makes a living as a controlled avatar under the control of a player in the Sims-like game Society, and they both represent the ultimate in virtual reality — controlling pockets of reality itself.
Why it counts: Why go virtual when you can have the full sensory experience of the real world with all the control of a computer program’
The Cell (2000)
By definition, most VR deals with computers and video games, but director Tarsem Singh realised what neurologists have been telling us for years — the wildest virtual simulation is the picture our brain forms of the world around us.
So when the FBI asks for social worker Catherine’s (Jennifer Lopez) help to find the intended victim of a killer, it’ll be the Freudian ride of her life. Using an organic VR technology, she plugs her consciousness into the mind of the comatose killer to read his thoughts in vivid virtual detail and find where he’s hidden the girl, probing dank corners full of more horrors than a hundred scary movies.
Why it counts: We’ve been living with (and in) the most advanced computer on the planet for 100 million years, and your desktop PC is peanuts by comparison. Who knows what we might find’