The 13th Floor

Blowing Minds With Cinema Reality: VR in Film

In 1935, Stanley G. Weinbaum’s short story PYGMALION’S SPECTACLES introduced the world to the concept of virtual reality, and ever since, science and technology have been working to create his vision. In the last few years, we have come closer than many ever imagined. The Oculus. The Vive. PlayStation VR. The future is here!

But as we all waited for this day to come, Hollywood was fast at work imagining what VR would be like. Sometimes, the silver screen visionaries came close, but most of the time they were waaaaaay off. Here, come with us as we look at ten movies that took the concept of VR and ran with it, sometimes right into a wall!


THE MATRIX (1999) Warner Brothers

Gonna power through this movie because we all know it, right?

Probably the most famous movie to deal with VR, THE MATRIX is less interested in capturing what VR really is and more interested in telling a story about breaking away from the norm. Is it a great movie? Yes. The Wachowskis know how to make kick ass flicks, and even when they falter, you know that they’re at least trying something.

Still, THE MATRIX is what a lot of people will think of when they think about VR, and in some ways it is amazing how close they get. One of the biggest VR games is JOB SIMULATOR where the basic idea is that you work a normal job sitting in a cubical. THE MATRIX is pretty much a guy who found a way to break into the code of JOB SIMULATOR and run amok.

Being set in a messed up future, we can forgive THE MATRIX for having gear that is unlike anything close to what VR actually is.


BRAINSCAN (1994) Columbia Tri-Star

BRAINSCAN is one of the most 90s movies I’ve ever seen. Written by SEVEN’s Andrew Kevin Walker and starring Edward Furlong, the movie is about an annoying teen who gets a VR game that makes him go around killing people. When the kid learns that the game is real and everything is controlled by a LITTLE MONSTERS reject called Trickster, he becomes even more annoying.

There’s no VR equipment in the movie, or any attempt to make anything seem like a game. The one scene that we watch through the “game” is filmed just like the rest of the movie, but with more blue. To make up for the lack of VR gear, BRAINSCAN does feature roughly 296 Aerosmith posters. I’m pretty sure every set has at least 2.

There is a weird subplot about a dog that may or may not be a higher power. The opening credits follow the dog around, and at two points the pup helps Furlong escape capture. I wish the movie was about the dog.

Two things I did love about BRAINSCAN was Furlong’s poorly photoshopped hand to make it look like he was holding a copy of FANGORIA, and his inability to drink milk like a human.


THE LAWNMOWER MAN (1992) New Line Cinema

LAWNMOWER MAN is the reason this piece exists. The idea came to me while watching this turd of a flick. While the movie is terrible, I was kind of surprised at how close it came to what VR equipment would look like. The headsets used in LAWNMOWER MAN look a lot like the Vive, so kudos to them on that.

As for everything else, for shame movie… for shame. The flick features Pierce Brosnan as a super cool scientist who is too into smoking and playing VR games with the kid next door to take his girlfriend to the city for the weekend. When Brosnan gets dealt the one-two punch of his lady leaving him and his favorite monkey dying, he decides to experiment on the mentally challenged and super buff Jeff Fahey. Brosnan’s supersmart formula turns Fahey into a mad genius. How the whole VR aspect of the experiment works isn’t clear. At first it seems like VR is used to test the monkey/Fahey but then we see Brosnan using VR to stimulate a piece of Fahey’s brain with his own hand.

Either way, Fahey gets all smart and learns to use the cool abilities of virtual reality in the actual world. The movie is a big old stinker, but the tech looked just about right!

As a fun bit of trivia – the movie is sometimes titled STEPHEN KING’S THE LAWNMOWER MAN. King’s short story THE LAWNMOWER MAN is nothing like the movie, and King sued to have his name, and the name of his story, taken off the movie. Still, the movie feels like a King story, in part because of King’s penchant to have mentally challenged characters who have superpowers (THE STAND, DREAMCATHCER).


ARCADE (1993) Full Moon Entertainment

Imagine a movie written by David Goyer starring Seth Green, megan Ward, AJ Langer, Peter Billingsley, John de Lancie, Don Stark, and a knockoff version of Scott Wolf. Do you think it would be good? If so, you’d be wrong. ARCADE is a very bad movie.

Credit where credit is due, ARCADE, like THE LAWNMOWER MAN comes real close to figuring out what actual VR gear would look like. They have goggles and even VR gloves with sensors in them – though for some reason, the characters put the gloves on, then pick up controllers, which suggests the gloves do nothing.

The story of ARCADE is very on the nose: these kids play so many video games that they get sucked right into the TV! With their friends all trapped inside the evil game, it’s up to Ward and Billingsley (who I thought was blind for the first five minutes of the movie because he sits quietly with giant sunglasses on) to go into the VR world and save them. As they track down info on the game, our heroes learn that actual brain cells were used in the making of the VR world and that these brain cells now control everything. The brain cells came from a little boy who was beaten to death by his mother. Within two minutes of learning that this kid was beaten to death by the woman who birthed him, our hero Megan Ward calls him an asshole, which left me wondering who I was supposed to be rooting for.

In truth, ARCADE isn’t a terrible movie. The VR world is neat at times, if a little too 90s (the first level has the player skateboarding through endless corridors with spikes on the walls). For some reason, there is a constant sound of a washing machine in the background of every scene, but it helps drown out the horrible soundtrack featuring bands that make music used solely to prey on freshmen girls for handjobs.


STRANGE DAYS (1995) 20th Century Fox

It had been a good 20 years since I had last seen STRANGE DAYS, and my brain had convinced me that it wasn’t very good. Maybe I’ve grown up in that time. Maybe the movie was ahead of it’s time. Whatever the case, this time I really enjoyed it, though it could be 30 minutes shorter without losing anything.

The movie, which takes place in the final days of 1999, follows Ralph Fiennes (who is doing an amazing impersonation of bradley Cooper well before Cooper was on the scene) as an ex-cop turned black market salesman. Fiennes peddles in SQUID discs, which are MiniDiscs that record the memories and physical sensations of a person. The original plan for SQUIDS was that they would be worn by police officers to be used as evidence in shootings and other police activities, but when the union shut that idea down, the tech went to more nefarious purposes.

Sure enough, Fiennes finds himself in possession of a SQUID disc that shows an LAPD cop executing a famous rapper. The rapper, Jeriko One, was a political activist who had spoken out against the LAPD on numerous occasions, so murdering him was maybe a bad call. With the police after him, Fiennes ,with the help of ass kicker Angela Bassett, needs to keep the disc safe and find a way to release it to the world.

The tech in STRANGE DAYS is nothing like the VR we have today, but that doesn’t keep the movie from being real close to other aspects of the world. It’s hard not to see a similarity to Jeriko One’s protests and the Black Lives Matter movement, for one thing. The movie also saw the current disagreements that are happening over police wearing bodycams. It shouldn’t be surprising that the movie is solid, it was directed by Kathryn Bigelow with a script by James Cameron and Jay Cocks. I would say that, of all the movies on this list, STRANGE DAYS is now my favorite.


eXistenZ (1999) Columbia Tri-Star

I’m going to be honest with you for a moment – I’m not a huge fan of  David Cronenberg. The guy is obviously super talented and when he’s on, he is on. The think is, I think that sometimes Cronenberg does strange and creepy things in his movies with no real point behind it, and people jump up to call him genius for it in fear of everyone thinking they didn’t get it.

EXISTENZ, out of all his movies, is the most guilty of this.

There is an interesting thing that Cronenberg touches on in the movie – VR and the reaction religious zealots could have to something like it (Cronenberg came up with the idea after interviewing Salman Rushdie who was in hiding because of religious zealots) but he never really looks into that concept. Instead, Cronenberg focuses on a lot of “ooh look how strange!” moments with all of them building up to an amazingly dumb reveal at the end. There is some amazingly bad dialogue in the movie too, with my favorite line being “Did you hear men, Chinese waiter? We want the special.”

I’m pretty sure that most of the cast had no idea what the point of the movie was, but trusted that Cronenberg was going to make something good out of it. They were wrong. The “religion is bad” subtext is about as edgy as mud. In 1999, when EXISTENZ came out, I suppose it may have been as edgy as dirt. All of the gross out bits in the movie play out like a fourteen year old trying to make an eleven year old go “eeeewwww!” A bone gun that shoots teeth. Game consoles made out of flesh with controllers that seem to have nipples in place of directional sticks. Umbilical cords that plug into a hole in a person’s back that looks like a butthole. Dudes cutting up mutated frogs. It all falls flat.

I did laugh when it is revealed that Willem Defoe’s character, the owner of a gas station, is named “Gas”.


GAMER (2009) Lionsgate Entertainment

From the guys who brought us CRANK comes GAMER, a movie that asks “What if we gave the guys who made CRANK even more coke?”

GAMER is, at it’s heart, an excuse to show as much violence and nudity as possible. The plot that surrounds it is an interesting one that they never really bother to look at. Gerard Butler is a killer serving a life sentence who can gain his freedom if he wins 30 matches of Slayer. Slayer is basically a CALL OF DUTY online free-for-all – Butler, and the other murders in the game, are controlled by random people around the world. For Butler, his “master” is some asshole kid who doesn’t really matter. The point is, Butler breaks out of Slayer to save his family and prove he doesn’t belong in prison for murder. He proves he isn’t a murderer by murdering a ton of people.

I’m a fan of GAMER. It isn’t a good movie, but it is a ton of fun, and the cast, which includes Michael C. Hall, Kyra Sedgwick, Terry Crews, and a cameo by Keith David, is great in it. I’m 99% certain that Joss Whedon is a fan of GAMER because he totally ripped it off for AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON.

To keep with the theme of this piece, the VR component of the movie is nothing like reality, but then nothing in the movie is like anything in reality and that is why it is so awesome.


LET’S BE EVIL (2016) IFC Films

The most recent movie on this here list, LET’S BE EVIL is about three broke ass 20-somethings who get work at a weird learning center for genius kids. Everything in the center is done through VR, which is how it fits here!

I don’t want to say much about LET’S BE EVIL since it is pretty new and I’m not a fan of spoiling movies. It is on Netflix here in the US, so feel free to check it out.

What I will say is that for what I imagine was a pretty low budget, the movie looks great. The lighting and solid CGI is really impressive. The movie goes back and forth between being shown in a standard fashion and going more found footage. When scenes are done in found footage, what you’re seeing is what the characters with the VR glasses see, including their HUD, the VR assistant, and the VR teaching tools, all of which looks great.

The biggest issue I had with the movie was repetition. The overall concept and story may have worked better as a short film. I still think it’s well worth checking out, but fair warning and all that.


Spy Kids 3: Game Over (2003) Dimension Films

Right off the bat, I want to be clear – this is a terrible movie. I’m not saying that as an adult watching a movie for kids, I’m saying that as a human who felt like this movie was made to torture us all.

So, the idea is that this evil guy called the Toymaker, played by Sylvester Stallone, was once a good guy but turned bad and got stuck in cyberspace. During his imprisonment, the Toymaker created a VR game called Game Over that will… something. They say his plan is to get out of cyberspace by having players in the game flip a switch on level five, but they also say that no one can reach level five because the game is unwinnable. Seems to me that the answer to this problem is to not worry about it. Instead, the government sends in some kids to stop the Toymaker from escaping by doing exactly what he needs them to do so he can escape. The movie is a real piece of shit.

The acting, be it from the kids or the adults who appear in it, is on par with THE ROOM. That may be because the entire movie was done with green screens and no one knew what the shit was happening at any given time. I’m pretty sure there wasn’t a script. If there was, Robert Rodriguez should be ashamed of himself.

The movie takes place almost entirely in a virtual world, and to give credit where it is due, I liked the look of everything. The CG was super cartoony and colorful, which makes the visuals pop. I’m pretty sure that everyone had fun making the movie as well. In the least, Stallone is eating scenery like he’s decided to give up on his diet and I did love that. Watching Stallone play four versions of himself is the highlight of the movie for me.

I could be wrong, but I think the SPY KIDS franchise is the only series of kids movies that spawned two hard R spin-offs, which is kooky.


STAY ALIVE (2006) Buena Vista Pictures

I don’t know if there is any movie that has made me as angry as STAY ALIVE. The movie, which is about a ghost that makes a VR video game so it can kill people, is so fucking dumb. Now, I could go through the whole movie and explain the dumbness to you, but I want to focus on the ending.

When STAY ALIVE came out, I worked at Activision (along with fellow Blumhouse writer William Bibbiani!). I’m going to now explain to you what this ghost, the ghost of Countess Elizabeth Bathory had to do in order to get her game onto store shelves.

First, the ghost of Countess Elizabeth Bathory had to learn how to program and create 3D models for a game. They never say what engine she uses, but I’m gonna say it is Unreal, so she needs to know C++, C#, Assembly, and OpenGL to start.

She then needs to get a license to release on console. The movie shows that the game comes out on PlayStation, so we’ll focus there. The ghost of Countess Elizabeth Bathory filled out the Stage 1 submission paperwork, which includes a written description of the game (“If you die in the game, you die in real life”), information on the developer (“I am the ghost of a countess who died in 1614. I am the artist, animator, programmer, designer, and producer of the game”), and the publisher. Here’s problem – in 2006 when STAY ALIVE came out, neither Sony or Microsoft allowed for independent games to be released on their consoles, so the ghost of Countess Elizabeth Bathory had to get a 3rd Party to publish her game. Activision, EA, a company like that.

So the game passes Stage 1, which is amazing. Sony sends developer kits, and the ghost of Countess Elizabeth Bathory gets to work. She gets a solid alpha build, which is when the movie starts. The ghost of Countess Elizabeth Bathory sees that her game works as intended – die in the game, die in real life – and continues to work on it. As she needs a 3rd Party publisher, that means there is a test team and producers and marketing people somewhere in Los Angeles or maybe New York or Canada looking at the game. Sooner or later, someone playing the game dies in the exact way they died in the game. A bug gets written up “If the user dies in the game, they will die in real life”. The bug gets sent to the ghost of Countess Elizabeth Bathory who marks it NAB (Not A Bug) and a producer for the publisher closes the bug.

More testers die. Some producers die. A few interns die. Gregg from marketing dies. The game is ready for 1st Party submission.

Discs are sent to Sony for test. During the testing, the Sony team finds that the player will die in real life if they die in the game. They fail the game, refusing to release it. The publisher argues the fail, saying that dying is part of the game. Sony relents and approves the game.

WHAT THE SHIT! Where is legal on this?!

The game now finishes, review copies are sent to various game sites and magazines. Reviewers die while playing the game – game developers and publishers around the world rejoice.

The game hits store shelves. People buy it. They play it. They die.

Families of the dead sue Sony and the publisher. The publisher is forced to shut down. Sony stops R&D on the PlayStation 3. Sales of the PlayStation 2 plummet. The Xbox and GameCube become the top two selling consoles.

The ghost of Countess Elizabeth Bathory can never make another game.

Now, I know that with movies there’s a need to let go of some reality, but this… this is too damn much for me! Maybe I know too much about how the sausage is made for this one, but even if you ignore the release of the game, the movie is not good, but it does have Jimmi Simpson in it, and he’s awesome in everything.


Sorry… that last one has been stewing in my for a decade.

*Header Photo: iStock