Movies Featuring Virtual Reality
Virtual reality is currently on pace to become a staple of our everyday lives. With real-world applications to education, gaming, business, and other industries becoming more and more frequent, it’s not hard to imagine a world in the near future in which a VR setup is as commonplace as the TV in your family room.
But before virtual reality became part of our everyday actual reality, storytellers and filmmakers envisioned what is just now coming to pass. Some viewed the potential for the emerging technology as a means of escape, others felt the need to tell us a cautionary tale, and some used a mixture of both in their work.
Let’s take a look at some of the best films to feature the concept of VR.
Tron/Tron: Legacy (1982/2010)
These two films dive deep into what would happen if you suddenly found yourself transported inside of a video game. Though it may seem like a dream come true for many avid gamers out there, the films quickly establish that it isn’t without its downside.
The original Tron film sees Jeff Bridges as computer hacker Kevin Flynn, who is sucked into the video game Tron and must survive a series of games in order to escape. Though its special effects don’t hold up to the scrutiny of today’s audiences, the computer animation used to render virtual reality stunned audiences in 1982.
Tron: Legacy picks up 25 years later and this time focuses on Flynn’s son, Sam, played by Garrett Hedlund. While it’s hard to outdo a classic like Tron, Tron: Legacy certainly does one-up the original in the visual effects department. The world of Tron is more crisp and vibrant than ever, and viewers feel transported into it right alongside Sam. When it comes to creating a believable setting, Tron learned to walk in VR so Tron: Legacy could run.
Total Recall (1990)
Total Recall is a sci-fi/action film directed by Paul Verhoeven and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger that was based on Philip K. Dick’s short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale.” The film follows Douglas Quaid (Schwarzenegger), who receives a memory of a trip to Mars from a company that specializes in virtual reality vacations. Things go awry, though, when his virtual trip leads to a secret organization attempting to stop him from remembering his past as a secret agent. From start to finish, viewers aren’t sure what’s real and what’s not. Much like Quaid himself, you’ll be constantly wondering whether it’s all real or just a part of his virtual experience. It’s a thrilling action/adventure romp that contains more genuine comedy than you may expect from the material and may leave you questioning reality altogether.
Where many films dealing with VR explore the concept of people being transported into a virtual world, Virtuosity flips the genre on its head and ponders what would happen if a VR character found themselves put into our world.
Starring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, Virtuosity is about a VR simulation created from the merging of several serial killers’ personalities that finds its way into our world. Washington plays an ex-cop who has to hunt down the rogue program SID 6.7, played by Crowe, and end its killing spree.
The Matrix (1999)
Written and directed by Lana and Lilly Wachowski, The Matrix is a film that thus far has stood the test of time. Mixing expertly choreographed action sequences with groundbreaking special effects, the film is a visual masterpiece that explores a world conquered by human-created machines. Unlike Skynet of the Terminator franchise, which sought to eradicate the human race, the artificial intelligence in The Matrix has found a more productive use for our species: energy. The machines accomplish this by keeping humans placated in a virtual-reality world known as the Matrix as they absorb energy from our bodies.
Throughout the course of the virtual reality movie, protagonist Neo (played by Keanu Reeves) dives in and out of the Matrix by literally plugging his mind into the simulation. He’ll need to learn to manipulate this virtual world to his advantage to survive: If you die in the Matrix, you die in the real world, too.
As far as VR movies go, this one is right near the top. It’s a must-watch for any sci-fi fan and explores the dark potential for VR to enslave the mind.
EXistenZ is a sci-fi horror film starring Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jude Law that was directed by the king of body horror, David Cronenberg. The movie centers on Leigh’s character, Allegra Geller, who plays a virtual reality video game developer being hunted down by assassins. Aided by Law’s character, Ted, she goes on the run in an attempt to save the game and their lives.
Gamer is a film about virtual reality gaming with a unique spin: It’s technically not virtual.
In the film, video game players control real-life death-row inmates in an online game known as Slayers. Gerard Butler stars as one of these inmates, and he must survive the game with help from the player controlling him in order to earn his freedom. It’s an exhilarating and visceral experience that does a good job exploring the line between simulated and actual violence. As long as you aren’t expecting Oscar-worthy filmmaking, it’s a fun enough ride for those looking to satiate their VR-film hunger with a heaping side of action.
Ender's Game (2013)
Based on the critically acclaimed novel by Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game explores a world in which children are trained to become military combatants through VR simulations. It’s a bleak idea offset by vibrant and truly stunning visuals, especially where the simulated environments are concerned. The film stars Harrison Ford and Asa Butterfield and received mostly praise from critics and audiences alike.
Ready Player One (2018)
Ready Player One is a fantasy/sci-fi/action movie based on Ernest Cline’s novel of the same name. Directed by the legendary Steven Spielberg, the film is equal parts coming-of-age story and pop culture love letter.
It’s a movie where virtual reality has completely reshaped societal norms through a new technology known as the Oasis. Though it was initially created as a video game platform, the Oasis has evolved into a way of life. People work in the Oasis, students attend school in the Oasis, and corporations seek to monetize every inch of the Oasis.
The plot centers around Wade Watts, played by Tye Sheridan, and a contest set up by the Oasis’s creator, James Halliday, in which the winner gains Halliday’s vast fortune and control of the Oasis. Watts must race against time to beat business executive Sorrento, played to smarmy perfection by Ben Mendelsohn, in order to save not just the Oasis but the lives of himself and his loved ones.