A new Spielberg film is always something to get a bit excited about, and his latest is no exception. Based on the best-selling book by Ernest Cline, ‘Ready Player One’ promises to be a spectacular realization of the dystopian sci-fi novel, and audiences are already hyped for the mash-up between VR, cinema, and Spielberg. With a trailer that shows Chucky fighting the Iron Giant and the DeLorean from ‘Back to the Future’ being chased by cops, the hype is building for the action extravaganza. However, this isn’t the first time that VR has been on the big screen. Here are the best (and occasionally worst) examples of Hollywood attempting to explore the concept of Virtual Reality. Some of the artistic choices made are a lot closer than you might have thought. Spoilers within!
Is it even Virtual Reality if you can’t tell the difference? That is the question asked in the adaptation of the Philip K. Dick short story ‘We Can Remember It For You Wholesale’. The Arnie action adventure takes place in various locations, from a cyberpunk version of Earth to a long stay on the colonies of Mars. However, the question remains (and still causes discussion and argument), is whether or not Arnie’s character ‘Douglas Quaid’ was ever even on Mars, or was it all a simulation that he had paid for? Are the future of holidays all in the mind, or is Arnie simply an action hero fighting against the odds? If the answer is that the whole narrative is a virtual holiday with an adventure element, then the technology would need to be many times where we are now. As much as a virtual trip to Mars has potential, would it be better to visit in person?
Using Virtual Reality to explore the subconsciousness of another person is a fascinating concept, and the medical professions are just as hyped for the possibilities of VR as everyone else. Of course, this Jennifer Lopez vehicle swaps any notion of reality and is instead an occasionally beautiful fantasy with a very dark edge. In the film, Lopez explores the mind of a serial killer (a pre-Kingpin Vincent D’Onofrio), and the end result might not be the best portrayal of VR in cinema, but it’s certainly one of the most beautiful. Roger Ebert called it one of the best films of the year 2000, and it’s difficult to argue with Ebert. As a look at the capabilities of VR, it’s interesting to note that the use of VR in ‘The Cell’ is driven from a medical standpoint, and we are seeing the same developments in real life. Perhaps it was closer to the real world than we thought?
Virtual reality as a form of intoxication is not a concept that cinema has ignored. David Cronenberg has explored the idea a number of times, but in nothing as blatantly fun or insane as ‘Strange Days’. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, the world it shows is one where it is possible to buy experiences, plugging them into your VR kit and experiencing the memories and lives of others. The addictive nature is shown by the more and more extreme experiences that addicts hunt for, culminating of course in a VR death. It may have been a little optimistic, because we’re in 2018 and the film is set very much in the distant past (1999), and it’s not possible to get high on memory supply quite yet.
The Lawnmower Man
It may look dated now, but at the time ‘The Lawnmower Man’ was a groundbreaking piece of cinema that was for many people their first notion of what VR could be. Based very loosely on a short story by Stephen King, ‘The Lawnmower Man’ saw Pierce Brosnan attempt to improve the mind of his mentally disabled gardener using a combination of computer simulation and drugs. Over the course of the film, Brosnan unwittingly makes Jeff Fahey’s ‘Jobe Smith’ much more intelligent, but (obviously for a Stephen King story) it all takes a turn for the dark very quickly. With its truly pessimistic finale, ‘The Lawnmower Man’ could easily be an episode of ‘Black Mirror’. It’s just a shame that the special effects are so very distracting and ultimately distract from the power of the film. Interesting to note that just like ‘The Cell’, this story uses medicine and the dream of helping people to show what VR can do.
Of course, ‘The Matrix’ is never to be ignored when talking about VR. Hugely inspirational, much copied and never quite topped, ‘The Matrix’ is dystopian cyberpunk at its very best. It may steal as many ideas from William Gibson as it can without getting into copyright issues, but there is an element of taking the Gibson ingredients and mashing them all together to create the ultimate combination of VR and escapism, with most of the characters trying to break out of a false reality in order to get to the real world. With mysteries for the main character ‘Neo’, a little bit of love story and, of course, those groundbreaking action sequences, ‘The Matrix’ remains one of the cornerstone moments of VR meeting the public consciousness.
All of these films used VR as vital elements in their world-building or narrative structures. ‘Ready Player One’ is set to take VR to a very mainstream audience and is likely to increase interest in the technology among the general public. As much as areas such as gaming and medicine are currently driving the future of VR, it isn’t beyond reason to assume that ‘Ready Player One’ might be the entrainment factor that propels Virtual Reality into a much more public arena. As we have seen with AI representation in cinema, it is only by exploring stories that we are able to map out and explore potential futures, and with ‘Ready Player One’, Spielberg looks set to explore the concept with the full force of 40 years of storytelling experience to back him up. Those who enjoy the escapism available in VR, Sci-Fi and movies will also enjoy the escapism in books, music, TV series, and puzzles such as an Escape Game. With VR becoming more and more available to the general public, the interest in the technology is only going to increase from here on. It might be time to hold on tight, strap on a headset and invest in a haptic suit, because the future is looking very virtual from here.