So as virtual reality becomes an increasingly tempting alternative to the real world, we’re going to look back at our favorite digital worlds in film.
It’s a small but growing subgenre – although the majority of virtual reality’s depictions on the silver screen aren’t quite as upbeat and optimistic as Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One book or the subsequent adaptation, with The Matrix the most famous example of the technology as a deceptive prison.
There’s therefore a healthy mix of cautionary tales of the technology replacing our reality altogether as well as optimistic speculation of the endless possibilities a virtual world represents, with both routes providing juicy premises for classic 2D cinema.
So strap on your VR goggles and make sure not to hit anything – here are seven virtual reality worlds to explore after Ready Player One.
1. The Matrix
While the Matrix may not feature the distinctive goggles we now associate with virtual reality, the 1999 classic is nevertheless the most famous depiction of the technology on screen. For those who have yet to go down the rabbit hole and discover what The Matrix is, the film follows Thomas Anderson, a computer programmer who discovers that humanity is trapped inside a simulated reality called The Matrix and leads the rebellion against the machines responsible.
It goes without saying that The Matrix’s take on virtual reality is a tad darker than that of Ready Player One – while Spielberg’s film briefly touches on the idea of the importance of logging off to spend time in the real world, in the Keanu Reeves cyberpunk virtual reality has completely replaced the real world, with the unaware human race spending their entire lives alone and isolated in containment pods with their minds locked in a digital prison.
It’s a worst-case scenario for virtual reality – but it did bring the concept to the mainstream, and is still worth a watch just how good the film is even though our perception of the technology has changed. Our five-star review notes how “the Wachowskis mix ultra-cool visuals, vertigo-inducing kung fu and a deliciously paranoid scenario for an adrenaline-pumping rollercoaster ride of extraordinary vision and astounding power” that “pushed the boundaries of imagination and digital- effects technology further than ever before.”
Where to watch: NOW
2. The Lawnmower Man
Taking the name from a Stephen King short story – and little else – it’s not surprising that this 1992 sci-fi has a pretty negative take on virtual reality. The Lawnmower Man stars Pierce Brosnan as Dr. Lawrence Angelo, a brilliant scientist who experiments on chimpanzees using VR – but when he puts a gardener through the same treatment, he gains superhuman abilities.
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It’s safe to say that Ready Player One has significantly better visual effects than that of The Lawnmower Man, which are pretty laughable by today’s standards – but shows that anxiety over virtual reality technology is not a new phenomenon. Spielberg’s adaptation shows virtual worlds as fun escapism where players can share their passions together as long as it is not all-encompassing, but The Lawnmower Man acts as a fun sci-fi horror counterpoint speculating about the dangers of a digital world.
As our The Lawnmower Man review points out the film’s big draw – then impressive special effects – have aged rather poorly, but the movie remains “notable only for its attempt to combine a variation on the Frankenstein theme with the cinematic opportunities offered by ‘virtual reality “.
Where to watch: Shudder
3. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle
Along with Ready Player One, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle might just be one of the best video game films around – despite not actually being based on a video game…
A “rebootquel” of the beloved Robin Williams classic, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle follows four teenagers who are transported into the Jumanji video game as adult avatars and must complete the game in order to survive.
While the Jumanji reboot films technically do not use virtual reality technology to realize the game world – instead they are magically sucked in – they are still one of the best Hollywood depictions of what it would be like to fully enter a video game VR-style. Both Ready Player One and the new Jumanji films are fun, family-friendly romps that while not based on existing video games nevertheless incorporate several gaming tropes into their story, and thus have become one of the medium’s best translations to the silver screen.
Video game similarities aside, both Ready Player One and Jumanji are two of the best family adventure movies in recent years – our Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle review described the film as being “as good as the 1995 original, director Jake Kasdan’s rip-roaring action adventure takes the bare bones of Chris Van Allsburg’s 1981 book and adds contemporary twists”. It was a box office success too, resulting in Jumanji: The Next Level and Jumanji 4.
Where to watch: Amazon Prime
4. Assassin’s Creed
Speaking of video game movies, here’s one actually based on a game that uses virtual reality. Based on the best-selling video game franchise, Assassin’s Creed stars Michael Fassbender as Callum Lynch, who explores the memories of his ancestor to become a Master Assassin and take on an evil organization.
While from the outside it may look as if the Assassin’s Creed series makes use of time travel, all the historical scenes in fact take place in virtual reality – Callum uses a machine called the Animus to relive the memories of a long-dead reality in a virtual world (a handy excuse for any glitches in the games!). Granted Assassin’s Creed does not explore the possibilities of virtual reality quite as much as Ready Player One – the technology is largely only used to recreate 1492 Madrid – but it does have one of the more unique VR machines in film, eschewing the usual goggles or chairs for a giant mechanical arm that allows Fassbender to run and jump around in one of the most visually interesting depictions of technology.
We were fairly impressed in our Assassin’s Creed review, describing the film as “a thrilling, visually nightmarish Dan Brown-style conspiracy tale where Mortal Kombat meets Raiders of the Lost Ark”. For some more immersive assassinations, it seems as if an actual Assassin’s Creed VR game is in development, as well as a new live-action series at Netflix.
Where to watch: Amazon Prime
We can’t talk about virtual realities in film without mentioning one of the first-ever video game movies. Tron stars Jeff Bridges as Kevin Flynn, a computer hacker who is transported into the digital world and competes in gladiatorial games with the help of a security program.
Inspired by the iconic early video game Pong, cult classic Tron was a landmark film in terms of computer animation and gaming in film and paved the way for films like Ready Player One. Indeed Ready Player One makes several references to the 1982 classic throughout – a light-cycle is seen during the virtual race scene, and features more prominently in the book when Parzival plays the classic game Tron: Deadly Discs.
Ahead of its time – and the available technology – Tron was the first film set in an abstract computer world that so many other films on this list owe a debt to. It’s a decent film also – our Tron review described the movie as an “imaginative electronic fantasy” that “broke new cinematic ground” and likely laid the groundwork for the Toy Story franchise. A sequel, Tron: Legacy, was released in 2010, with Tron 2 reportedly in the works with Jared Leto.
Where to watch: Disney+
6. Ender’s Game
Also based on a beloved science fiction book – Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card – this film adaptation of the same name explores virtual reality in war. The movie follows Ender Wiggins (Asa Butterfield), a gifted child sent to a space military academy to prepare for an imminent alien invasion from an insectoid species.
As with Ready Player One, Ender’s Game shows the uses of often-maligned gaming skills – this time in war, where gifted children train in virtual reality-esque simulations. Given that several militaries around the world have begun to train using virtual reality, this particular depiction of the technology has some real-world ramifications, especially given a third-act plot twist. Ender’s Game acts as a cautionary tale about blurring the lines between virtual worlds and the real one, and how war as a game can easily warp your view of your opponent.
Our Ender’s Game review was full of praise for future Sex Education star Asa Butterfield, describing how “special effects dazzle throughout, Ford and veteran soldier Ben Kingsley add gravitas, but the assured Butterfield is the true star, as the reluctant teen who carries the survival of mankind on his shoulders”.
Where to watch: Netflix NOW
7. Free Guy
One of the more recent entries into the growing virtual reality subgenre, Free Guy returns to the more optimistic tone of Ready Player One – and then multiplies that by 100. A mashup of The Matrix and The Truman Show, Free Guy stars Ryan Reynolds on usual wisecracking form as Guy, a bank teller who discovers he’s actually a non-playable character in an open-world video game and teams up with real players to save his world from deletion.
Ready Player One and Free Guy have an enormous amount in common with each other, from the virtual videogame setting to the villainous company CEOs to the many Free Guy Easter Eggs and pop-culture crossovers. Indeed, if Ready Player One is a love letter to ’80s pop culture then Free Guy is the same for modern gaming, featuring several iconic video game weapons as well as cameos from popular streamers. As celebrations of geek culture go, Ready Player One and Free Guy are two of the best options out there.
Our Free Guy review named “Jodie Comer is the standout in this broadly enjoyable video game movie” which was a surprise crowd-pleasing hit at the pandemic box office, enough for Free Guy 2 to enter development.
Where to watch: Disney+
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