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A Brief History of Virtual Reality in Movies

Before ‘Ready Player One,’ a bunch of other movies entered virtual reality as well.
The Lawnmower Man
New Line Cinema
By  · Published on March 29th, 2018

Reality is boring. Who would want to live in the real world when there are synthetic alternatives out there that offer more imagination and wonder? Virtual reality allows for us to temporarily escape mundane routine and experience something a little out of the ordinary, even if it is potentially dangerous.

As the term indicates, virtual reality comes from the definitions ‘virtual’ and ‘reality.’ The dictionary describes it as “a realistic and immersive simulation of a three-dimensional environment, created using interactive software and hardware, and experienced or controlled by movement of the body.” Essentially, then, while the experience itself is first-hand and realistic, it’s all an illusion presented through the means of technology.

The origins of virtual reality are disputed among historians and the likes. For instance, 19th-century playwright Antonin Artaud believed that illusion was not all that distinct from reality as audience members viewing plays could suspend their disbelief and immerse themselves in the drama taking place on stage. By that logic, we can view movies as virtual reality as well. However, virtual reality as we know it today originates in sci-fi literature.

Laurence Manning’s 1933 series of short stories, “The Men Who Awoke,” describes a machine that replaces people’s senses with electrical impulses and allows them to live a make-believe life. Meanwhile, Stanley G. Weinbaum’s 1935 story, “Pygmalion’s Spectacles,” features a pair of goggles which allow those that wear them to experience a fictional world through holographics, smell, taste, and touch.

In the years that followed, technological advancements introduced more simulation environments. In the 1950s, for example, filmmaker Morton Heilig developed the Sensorama, a multisensory enhancement device which allowed participants not only to see the films created especially for it, but also hear, smell, and feel the environment in which they took place.

In 1965, Ivan Sutherland introduced the “Ultimate Display” concept, a head-mounted device that simulated reality to the point where wearers could not tell the difference from actual reality and the fictional version depicted in the device’s frames.

Throughout the 60’s and 70’s, pioneers continued to push artificial reality forward, but the use of the term “virtual reality” didn’t come about until 1987 when Jaron Lanier, founder of VPL Research, coined it. Not only did Lanier give the concept a name, but his company was the first to produce and sell gear to the public — such as goggles and gloves — that was necessary to experience the illusion

These days, virtual reality is commonplace in everything from entertainment to medical research. They make video games better and help train people to save lives. All in all, it’s revolutionized the world in many ways, and for that, we can consider it a success.

That said, when technology advances we can always rely on sci-fi movies to adopt similar concepts and apply their sensational spin — often with terrifying and negative intentions in mind. As such, the concept of virtual reality has been the backbone of movies where people are trapped in artificial worlds or society is evil. These movies teach us to be wary of the future and so forth, as well as explore ideas about social change and institutionalized corruption.

One of the first onscreen instances of virtual reality was Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1973 TV movie, World on a Wire. The film, which is based on the 1964 novel “Simulacron-3” by Daniel F. Galouye, features an artificial world where inhabitants foolishly believe everything is real. The book was re-adapted again in 1999 as The Thirteenth Floor, but the notion of living in a world where everything is a fake illusion features heavily in Dark City and The Matrix

The 80’s and the early 90’s is when movies of this ilk began to take off, however. TRON, released in 1982, follows a computer hacker who gets pulled into a digital world after accessing a corrupt corporation’s mainframe. There, he becomes a freedom fighter who rages against the machine because it’s become too intelligent and problematic. A sequel was released in 2010 and, at the time of writing, we’re still waiting for that long-awaited third installment.

Another 80’s treat is the Christopher Walken-starring Brainstorm, which revolves around the development of a system that records people’s thoughts and plays them on videotape. Of course, the device catches the eye of the military who have their nefarious ideas for it in mind. Don’t trust the government is the lesson here.

If there’s one filmmaker who wants to make us terrified of everything it’s Paul Verhoeven, and his 1990 thinking person’s action yarn, Total Recall, is a prime example of that. Based on Philip K. Dick’s short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” the film features an evil corporation who implant people’s memories with computer-generated fantasies. A similar concept was employed in Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days, which includes VR being used to let people live out their most deranged fantasies from the comfort of a headset.

One of the most entertaining movies to center around virtual reality is The Lawnmower Man, a 1992 horror-thriller based on a Stephen King short story. Here, a scientist (played by future Bond stud Pierce Brosnan) uses a VR system to aid in the development of his mentally-handicapped brother. The experiment works wonders, and his brother’s condition improves — to the point where he develops psychic powers and decides to exact retribution for being wronged his entire life.

In recent years, video game consoles like the PlayStation VR have been all the rage. Sure, they’re fun and all, but more gamers ought to check out the Full Moon Entertainment’s 1993 cautionary tale, Arcade, and get a grip on themselves. In this “Dante’s Inferno” riff, teenagers are pulled into a virtual reality video game and must overcome its deadly levels and pissed off the villain to survive.

Another video game-inspired VR movie is David Cronenberg’s Existenz. In this one, chords are inserted into people’s spines to make them one with the game. Interestingly, the inspiration for the story came about after Cronenberg met Salman Rushdie, author of the controversial book “The Satanic Verses,” who once had a price on his head for criticizing religion, But at its core, Existenz a statement about how humankind is too attached to technology.

The Matrix series is arguably the most popular set of movies to encompass these themes. Introduced in 1999, the Wachowski’s story takes place in a simulated reality where a group of heroes must wage war against a group of sentient machines that have enslaved humanity. While the quality of the sequels is debatable, there’s no denying that The Matrix franchise is a poster child for VR movies — and it’s the only one to inspire its religious movement.

In 2009, dynamic duo Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor took the VR gaming idea and gave the concept a playful twist with Gamer. Here, we experience a simulated reality where gamers control live actors characters in the ultimate first-person shooter experience. The film was the pair’s reaction to the direction technology, and television was heading at the time — like VR gaming, reality TV, and violent combat sports. In turn, they created one of the most underrated and hyperactive action movies of the century thus far.

James Cameron’s Avatar also plays with the concept and applies its touch. The film features advanced technology which allows humans to control genetically engineered alien bodies with their mind from a remote location. This is enhanced by the fact that it’s arguably the most “immersive” 3D spectacle ever made for filmgoers, but whether or not it’s a good movie is a question that continues to divide people whenever its name is brought up.

The latest to capitalize on the phenomenon is Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, which is one of the most ‘mainstream’ to date. Based on the 80’s nostalgia-obsessed novel of the same name, the story takes place in a world where people turn to something called OASIS to escape from their bleak reality. OASIS lets you do anything and be anywhere — the only limit is one’s imagination. And with so much pop culture history to borrow ideas from, how can anyone be short of imagination? Only time will tell how Spielberg’s latest adventure compares to its predecessors, but it probably won’t be better than The Matrix.

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Kieran is a Contributor to the website you're currently reading. He also loves the movie Varsity Blues.