Virtual reality is a gift of a mechanism for screenwriters and directors in Hollywood. It allows them to push plot limits of what's governed by the laws physics and, best of all, it means they can play with that most delicate of subjects of what is real.
Fortunately, the silver screen of years gone by is littered with such sci-fi classics, particularly the 90's. For those looking to scratch that cinematic itch ahead of the Oscars, here are the very best movies about virtual reality. Warning: a spoiler or two lie ahead.
The Lawnmower Man (1992)
First things first, yes this VR horror thriller is well worth a watch if you haven't already seen it. Based on a Stephen King story, The Lawnmower Man sees Jobe Smith develop psychic genius powers after being put on a regimen of crazy drugs and computer simulated experiences (cough: VR) by a scientist. It's really weird. But also easy to see where Palmer Luckey and the rest got their inspiration.
The really cool thing about revisiting this now is that Jaunt announced at this year's Sundance Film Festival that it is re-making the movie as an episodic VR series. Meta. It's described as a re-imagination rather than a straight remake so there's no reason not to revisit the cult original in anticipation.
Black Mirror (2016)
Spoiler alert: Season 3 of Charlie Brooker's endlessly imaginative dystopian anthology series Black Mirror includes a couple of episodes which deal with virtual reality. In the lovely but melancholy, hour-long San Junipero, it is only revealed towards the end of the TV movie episode that the 80s party town in which two girls meet is inside a virtual world.
In Playtest, meanwhile, the future of VR and mixed reality - specifically gaming - is much more sinister and scary. In this version, the tech works via an implant and the gameplay is generated based on the individual's worst fears. Watch it on Netflix now.
The Matrix is probably the very best virtual reality film there's ever been. Didn't really think of it as a VR flick at the time? No, neither did we and that's probably because it's a rather dark and twisted virtual world. Nobody realises that they're in it, nobody would want to be in it if they knew and, unless you happen to bump into a bunch of kung-fu goths with coloured pills, you'll be destined to spend your actual existence with your very life force serving the needs of your captors. Nasty stuff.
Of course the real VR fun begins once you understand the rules of the game that you're playing and how you can ultimately turn you into a superhero. There is no spoon.
A cult classic, eXistenZ is a VR film for the purists. It's centred around the launch of the world's greatest and most immersive virtual reality game where the game's creator goes on a journey into fantasy with a room full of the lucky first to try it. It also happens to be a wonderful subject matter for the ever-dark David Cronenberg to melt your mind while exercising a little of his trademark love for latex body horrors.
The effect for the viewer is that you get to embark on a form of VR journey of your own with the plot shifting from setting to setting with dream-like subtlety and absorbing you completely along the way.
The Thirteenth Floor (1999)
The Thirteenth Floor would probably have won the Saturn Award for the best science fiction film of the year if hadn't had the misfortune to be released at the same time as The Matrix. The bonus is that it affords this VR classic cult stasis - loved by those that know.
Virtual reality is the centre piece of the story that begins very much as a who dunnit. A billionaire owner and creator of the world's most advanced VR simulator pops his clogs under suspicious circumstances leaving the heir to the company framed as the murder. The plot thickens as the search for the truth enters the computer simulation. Mind-bending ensues.
Strange Days (1995)
Have you ever jacked in? Have you ever wire tripped?
Virtual reality is the tool in Strange Days which helps to answer questions about what it would be like to see through the eyes of others. An ex-cop turned futuristic digital drug dealer of a kind trades in emotions and experiences recorded on what's basically MiniDiscs (remember them?). The user dons a headset and gets to feel exactly what that other person saw and felt down to the every sense. There's excitement, joy, thrills and, of course, porn for all to enjoy so long as they're happy to tread on the grey side of the what's right and wrong.
Naturally, things get shaken up by a particular recording and we'll leave you the pleasure of enjoying that discovery for yourself, but the reason we've got in in our best VR movies list is because a) the acting's spot on and b) because there's something very believable about the kind of VR content that's bought and sold. Written by James Cameron, directed by Kathryn Bigelow and starring Ralph Fiennes, it's a class act.
Something of an oddity as a Polish-Japanese collaboration, Avalon is a bit of an art house flick and rather a beautiful one at that. Like all on this list, it's set in future and one where the youth of the day are addicted to an illegal VR game that's best described as a fully-immersive version of Call of Duty.
It's filmed in a stylised sepia tint and with a haunting soundtrack to match scored by Kenji Kawai who also write the music for the Ring films as well as the Manga classic Ghost in the Shell. Don't expect the plot to be too clear nor the pace of the action to be that quick, but the dark depiction of the virtual and consequent blurring of the lines is very nicely done.
World on a Wire / Welt Am Draht (1973)
For fans of 1970s sci-fi - think the colours and paranoia of A Clockwork Orange and The Andromeda Strain - then German virtual reality-focused Welt Am Draht, or World on Wire, is the classic missing from your set.
It's based on the same book as The Thirteenth Floor, so once again centres around the murder of the man who created a virtual world known as the Simulacron. While there's no difference in the major plot lines, what makes this one worth watching all the same is the claustrophobic sense of conspiracy that only Cold War thinking could truly capture. The stern German acting is also rather fun.
If the 70s was sci-fi paranoia, then the 80s was all about how the military was going to bend technology to its own, evil, warmongering ways. It's that drive that plays the antagonist in Brainstorm as a benevolent scientist, played by Christopher Walken, invents a VR technology, not unlike that in Strange Days, which can record and playback the sensory and emotional feelings of one person to the audience of another.
What's great about this depiction of the technology is, not only the insane amount of raw-looking, wired-up hardware involved but, most prophetically of all, the kinds of VR simulations that they use to wow the bosses. Just like Oculus today, it's all driving cars, riding rollercoasters and, yep, porn. It seems some things never change.
Ghost Machine (2009)
Don't believe the lack of hype, Ghost Machine ain't all that bad. It's a top notch concept perhaps slightly ruined by the fact that the VR becomes a vehicle for the film's real purpose as a slasher. All the same, it's one of the smoothest and most modern portrayals of a computer-generated immersive experience that you'll see on screen.
Probably quite realistically, this advanced tech is the product and prized asset of the military and used to train their soldiers on battle manoeuvres. Of course, it gets pinched for a bit of weekend war gaming by some of the troops who decide to take a stroll through the virtual in a haunted prison. Whoops. Maybe not a must but enjoyably British.
What did we miss? Let us know in the comments.
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