The future won’t look like this: 11 unintentionally ridiculous depictions of virtual reality
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1. Disclosure (1994)
Nothing dates a film faster than its attempt to anticipate the short-term future. These days, technology and society both move so fast that a film or TV show might look visually dated—or feel conceptually dated—by the time it hits the screen. Both were true of the silly, overwrought, Michael Crichton-derived sexual-harassment thriller Disclosure, which focused on the burning question on no one’s mind in 1994: What if the few women breaking through corporations’ glass ceilings used their newfound business-world power to practically rape and then demonize innocent employees like Michael Douglas? Histrionic misogyny aside, Disclosure also dated itself with its focus on a cutting-edge VR company data-storage system, which looks fairly plausible when Douglas is just exploring it, apart from the way it uses vast, cathedral-like rooms to house ordinary file cabinets. But the whole prospect becomes laughable when Moore’s temporary avatar—a 2-D wireframe with her stiff, implacable portrait pasted onto it—comes to erase some key data and winds up unknowingly chasing Douglas’ avatar around those cathedral rooms. It’s like a high-tech paper doll is coming to give him high-tech paper cuts.
2. Arcade (1993)
With a VHS box trumpeting, “Features ‘virtual reality’ special effects!” (which is just slightly more intriguing than “Features an awkwardly post-pubescent Peter Billingsley!”), the 1993 horror cheapie Arcade attempted to update Tron’s “evil sentient videogame” plot for the CD-ROM age. Arcade took a far darker turn than Disney, using the suicide of Megan Ward’s mom as a catalyst for her descent into Dante’s Inferno, the not-so-subtle name of the video arcade where a new virtual-reality console—simply titled “Arcade”—soon begins claiming her friends’ lives. Unfortunately, Arcade producers Full Moon Entertainment didn’t have Disney money, so instead of Tron’s elegant light grids, the obviously green-screened virtual-reality landscapes Ward is forced to fight (and skateboard) her way out of resemble Windows 3.0-era screensavers, with Ward seemingly always in danger of attack by a flying toaster. Screenwriter David S. Goyer and two of Ward’s co-stars, Seth Green and A.J. Langer, went on to better things, but otherwise, Arcade didn’t offer much of a glimpse into the future.
3. Brainscan (1994)
A failed attempt to generate a teen-horror franchise, Brainscan stars Edward Furlong as a surly young geek jaded by electronic entertainment. So when he encounters a new computer game that promises a total experience in unparalleled thrills and horror, his attitude is “Bring it on.” The game puts him in a trance, and when he comes to, he learns that it hypnotized him and compelled him to commit murder, and that the levels of the game consist of his efforts to stay one step ahead of the cops investigating the case, even as he’s being haunted and taunted by the house ghoul, the Trickster (played by T. Ryder Smith, a mainstay of Richard Foreman and other directors in the New York experimental theater scene). After Furlong kills his best friend and almost succumbs to the Trickster’s urging that he also murder the girl on whom he has an unspoken crush, he really comes to and is greatly relieved to learn that the whole movie has been a virtual-reality experience he’s undergone while playing, or rather being played by, the game. The movie didn’t do well enough to turn “It was all a computer program!” into the new “It was all a dream!” But David Cronenberg did give the same gimmick an arthouse treatment in his 1999 eXistenZ. Speaking of which…
4. eXistenZ (1999)
The future virtual-reality game world of eXistenZ isn’t all that visually ridiculous; it looks much like the real world, except a little smoother and slicker, with stars Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jude Law wearing enough pancake makeup to look like slightly fake versions of themselves. It’s more conceptually ridiculous, albeit in a thoroughly Cronenbergian way. Players have grotesque spinal rectums installed as ports so they can plug into the game; the game consoles are fleshy masses resembling human organs, while the controllers are squishy pink things with obscenely familiar-looking nipples as joysticks. While Law and Leigh are in the game, it sometimes takes over their actions, forcing Law to lick Leigh’s spinal port, abuse another character, or order a “special” meal that looks like a skinned mutant fish. It’s of a piece with Cronenberg’s career-long fondness for discomfiting body horror, but while all the grotesqueries are disturbing—particularly since the players sometimes lose control of how they react to them—it’s also pretty silly watching the characters parade through this world of ubiquitous bloody artificial umbilical cords and heaving detached flesh, all in pursuit of a game that never looks that enjoyable.
5. Johnny Mnemonic (1995)
Breaking into a well-stocked room in a warehouse, the title character (Keanu Reeves) commands his sidekick to find him “a Sino-Logic 16, Sogo-7 data gloves, a GPL stealth module, one Burdline intelligent translator, and Thompson eyephones.” Thus outfitted, with big-ass oven mitts on his hands and a circular piece of tin over his eyes, Johnny is equipped to “make a long-distance phone call” using the virtual-reality Internet of 2021. At the time of its release, this big-budget adaptation of a William Gibson story was notable for the number of corporate-product tie-ins it inspired—including a soundtrack album, a CD-ROM videogame, and a published version of Gibson’s screenplay, in case anyone was curious about what he had in mind before the studio got hold of it—so maybe it’s not surprising that its counterintuitive message seems to be that, thanks to technological advances, in the future, we’ll need 10 tons of crap to perform the simplest tasks. This scene is topped by the climax, in which Johnny and a heroic dolphin take VR form so Johnny can hack his own brain and defeat the bad guys. The computer animation in this sequence is of such cutting-edge sophistication that it wouldn’t be surprising to see the guys from the “Money For Nothing” video wandering through.
6. Nowhere Man, “A Rough Whimper Of Insanity” (1995)
The cultish TV series Nowhere Man, from the first year of the now-defunct UPN network, is a sort of cross between The X-Files and The Fugitive. The hero (Bruce Greenwood) is a famous photographer on the run from a powerful conspiracy that has erased all evidence of his existence, apparently because one of his pictures inadvertently exposed some terrible truth. In the seventh episode—the sub-Harlan Ellison title “A Rough Whimper Of Insanity” is an anagram for “information superhighway”—Greenwood meets Sean Whalen, an agoraphobic computer genius who introduces him to virtual reality by inviting him on an imaginary, computer-generated double date: In white tuxes, the two meet Greenwood’s wife and Whalen’s old computer teacher, and they dance to string music in what looks like an exceedingly overlit moonlit swamp. In the end, the heroes try to get to the bottom of who’s targeted Greenwood and why by virtually breaking into the website where the Powers That Be keep their secret files on everybody, but when their presence is detected, someone “deletes the system,” and Greenwood has to make a mad dash for the exit while the background turns into static in his wake. Whalen stays behind, and when last seen is catatonic and beyond reach, like Jonathan Pryce in Brazil. “I think he’s still in there,” explains the teacher. “When the system went down, he went with it.”
7. Wild Palms (1993)
The chief villain in Bruce Wagner and Oliver Stone’s TV miniseries is Robert Loggia, a United States senator, head of a Scientology-like religious sect, and leader of a fascist political group called the Fathers. He is also in charge of a television network that has developed holographic entertainment; while a computer-generated girl group serenades him at poolside, his channel broadcasts 3-D programs into people’s homes. What this means is that it looks as if the actors on sitcoms are actually saying their lines while standing in the viewers’ living rooms, which might just feel uncomfortable to people trying to unwind while sprawled on the couch in their underwear. One of Loggia’s enemies is his nephew, brilliant, handicapped tech genius Brad Dourif, who prefers to hold meetings in a virtual-reality environment, where he can escape his broken body and dress like a bit player in Marie Antoinette. Offering a pair of goggles to a VR newbie, he says, “You might feel a little nauseous at first,” mirroring viewers’ feelings when they realize Jim Belushi is the star of this thing. In a less-friendly mood, Dourif kills one of Loggia’s helpers, a seedy crooner played by Robert Morse, by luring him into a virtual-reality nightclub setting, where Morse watches his imaginary doppelgänger singing “All Of You,” before he rolls up his sleeve and crams his fist down Morse’s throat.
8. Mad About You, “Virtual Reality” (1994)
Even though the NBC relationship comedy Mad About You deliberately played VR up for laughs, its vision of a VR world still looks laughable in retrospect. In the second-season episode “Virtual Reality,” nutty John Pankow convinces his cousin Paul Reiser to invest in a virtual-reality company. Reiser wants to see what he’s investing in, so he dons the glasses and sees himself on a date with Christie Brinkley. But instead of showing him in a real setting, he and Brinkley frolic in a cartoonish background with shifting, squiggly drawings that are supposed to convey that he’s looking at something high-tech. The producers would have been better off showing what they showed during the end credits, which was Reiser kissing Brinkley within the more realistic confines of his apartment.
9. The Lawnmower Man (1992)
Perhaps most famous as a movie so removed from its supposed source material that author Stephen King successfully sued the producers to get his name off the title, The Lawnmower Man is Flowers For Algernon for a digital age. The film uses virtual reality to tell a traditional, Frankenstein-esque tale of science gone amok. Pierce Brosnan stars as a computer scientist who repurposes a VR training system designed to increase chimpanzee intelligence, using it on a mentally handicapped handyman played by Jeff Fahey. The results are predictable: Fahey experiences dramatic increases in brainpower, along with telekinetic abilities and a rapidly growing hunger for power. Virtual reality in the film, with all its polygonal textures and garish colors, is a cartoonish embodiment of the horrors of man’s reach exceeding his grasp, as Fahey’s computerized paradise turns him into a monomaniacal supervillain. It’s hard to decide which is more ridiculous: the garish high-tech designs or the idea that such technology could turn a shy, befuddled groundskeeper into a vengeful god bent on reaching out and touching the entire world.
10. The X-Files, “First Person Shooter” (2000)
Airing throughout the ’90s, The X-Files made various attempts to capture high-tech computer technology emerging during the period, most of which was instantly dated. Take the seventh-season episode “First Person Shooter,” co-written by cyberpunk icon William Gibson. A buxom, computer-generated warrior woman begins actually murdering people in an immersive 3-D combat game (with a huge broadsword, natch). With the Lone Gunmen playing the collective role of damsels in distress, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson enter the game world to dispatch the lethal virtual Amazon and rescue his computer-hacking buddies. Released just as the first-person shooter games the episode draws its title from were migrating online, “First Person Shooter” is an embarrassing document of adrenaline-jacked gun games of the era. The protagonists dress up like laser-tag Demolition Men, armed to the teeth with enormous guns. As for the digital effects, “First Person Shooter” offers a time capsule of turn-of-the-millennium computer graphics that seem like they’re rendered using first-generation PlayStation 2 hardware. (Note: the video below is a fanvid, but it at least shows how awkward some of this footage looks.)
11. VR.5 (1995)
Custom-designed to take The X-Files’ place on Fox’s Friday-night schedule when that show moved to Sundays, this paranoid cyber-fantasy stars the undernourished-looking Lori Singer as a mousy tech geek whose father Died Under Mysterious Circumstances the very night, back in 1978, when he brought home the family’s first computer. Huddling in her room after work, sitting in front of her computer screen with her virtual-reality goggles on while pretending to fly, Singer accidentally makes a remarkable discovery: If she makes a phone call while online, and someone else picks up, she can merge with that person’s consciousness and enter a heightened, sort-of-real fantasy world. (Or, as she puts it in what has to be the lamest attempt ever at a “The truth is out there”-style catchphrase: “Virtual reality is real!”) Most of the actual creative work on this glum series went into the imaginatively color-tinted fantasy sequences, many of which aren’t half-bad as eye candy. But they’re shackled to a moronic premise at the center of a show that, paradoxically for what was meant to be one cutting-edge piece of work, is built on the romantic, futuristic thrill of the dial-up connection.