In the early 1990s, we seemed to be standing on the cusp of a breakthrough in technology. Perhaps inspired by decades of science fiction, from Ray Bradbury to William Gibson, something called virtual reality promised to whisk us off to digital realms more colourful and thrilling than our own.
A system called Virtuality captured the media’s attention near the start of the decade. By wearing a cumbersome helmet and manipulating a joystick, you could play games like Dactyl Nightmare, a 3D shooter where a dinosaur flickered and swooped above your head. This nascent technology seemed to capture the imaginations of writers and filmmakers everywhere; suddenly, movies like The Lawnmower Man and Disclosure were appearing in cinemas, each presenting us with the possible ways virtual reality might change how we interact with each other – or warp our perspective of the everyday world.
The past year or so has seen virtual reality once again grab headlines, with devices like Oculus Rift and Sony’s Morpheus either available to buy now or coming out in the near future. With this being the case, we decided to revisit the virtual reality films of the ’90s and try to rank them in order of quality.
12. The Lawnmower Man 2: Beyond Cyberspace (1996)
The original film’s star Jeff Fahey was sensible enough to turn down this tawdry sequel, so he was replaced, in an inspired bit of meta casting, by Matt Frewer – previously famous for playing AI character Max Headroom in the 1980s.
Unfortunately, the creative inspiration ends there, as Jobe hatches another tedious plan to take over cyberspace. The one proper link with the previous film is young actor Austin O’Brien, who returns to play the now teenaged Peter Parkette – Jobe’s old next-door neighbour. The sex, violence and chimps with guns of the original have all been airbrushed out of this more child-friendly sequel – Grant Morrison was even approached to write the thing at one point – and Beyond Cyberspaceloses the last shred of its so-bad-it’s-good charm as a result.
11. Brainscan (1994)
My memories of this horror flick are a little hazy, but maybe that’s because years of playing ’90s videogames have turned my brain to mush. In fact, Brainscan warns of the dangers of exactly this kind of behavior; Edward Furlong plays Michael, a horror movie, videogame-obsessed teenager who ends up trying out a new VR game.
“We dare you to experience the most frightening game on this planet,” an advert for the game (called Brainscan) reads. “Unleash the dark side of your soul! Enter the game more real than your reality!”
Michael’s sucked into a virtual realm that looks almost exactly like his own cosy suburban community – except here he’s cast in the role of a gloved, knife-wielding serial killer. Goaded by an unseen narrator into entering a house, killing the occupant and hacking off his foot, Michael emerges from the game horrified yet exhilarated. Then he notices that an uncannily similar murder occurred in his neighbourhood. And worse, there’s also a severed foot lying in his freezer…
If all this sounds very dark, that’s because it was written by Andrew Kevin Walker, who also wrote Seven and 8mm. Unfortunately, his screenplay was altered before shooting with a hokey, sub-Freddie Krueger-style villain written into the film – actor T. Ryder Smith admitted as much on his website.
As a result, what we get is a largely forgettable, reactionary remake of Videodrome; the message seems to be that retreating into a world of comics, games, and heavy metal rather than going out with your friends really will turn your brain to mush. Or worse, prompt you to hack off a neighbor’s foot and keep it in your fridge.
10. Arcade (1993)
With its straight-to-video budget, this sci-fi thriller’s CGI is more Sega Mega Drive than Jurassic Park, but there’s something quite endearing about this cut-price Tron for the ’90s. A group of kids heads to a local arcade to try out the latest in VR entertainment, only to be trapped inside the game by the spirit of a little boy. The game, it turns out, is powered by the brain cells of a deceased kid whose ghost torments anyone daring to play it. With a premise like that (penned, brilliantly enough, by David S. Goyer) you can’t help but warm to Arcade just a little, iffy graphics and all. Also, look out for John de Lancie and a young Seth Green among the cast.
9. The Lawnmower Man (1992)
You know you’re in for a wild ride when a sci-fi thriller opens with a scene shot from the perspective of a chimpanzee. Pierce Brosnan plays Dr. Angelo, an archetypal mad scientist who thinks that human intelligence can be expanded via a heady cocktail of virtual reality videogames and injections. Unfortunately, his experiments on a chimp leave the beast running around with a gun in its hand.
Undeterred, Angelo continues his research on Jeff Fahey’s intellectually-impaired gardener, Jobe Smith. After a few weeks on the doctor’s chemicals-and-VR training regime, Jobe emerges as a super-intelligent, shirtless stud in tight jeans who quickly seduces his horny neighbor. But as Jobe’s intellect continues to soar, his interest turns from sex and Sudoku to taking over the entire world, and he hatches a plan to project himself into the information super highway and become “Cyber Christ” (his appellation, not ours).
A film with so little in common with its source story that author Stephen King sued to have his name struck from the credits, The Lawnmower Man is the quintessential ’90s movie. It has shiny (and then very expensive) computer graphics, gratuitous gore and sex scenes, and lots of very amusing dialogue. “He’s the best chimp I’ve ever had!”
The Lawnmower Man also functions as a cautionary look at what might happen if we were to take a lot of drugs and play Oculus Rift. This isn’t to say we aren’t tempted to give it a try at least once.
8. Virtuosity (1995)
As well as tapping into that trendy cyberspace thing, Virtuosity also rides on the coattails of that other ’90s staple, the serial killer thriller. A psychotic artificial intelligence breaks out of its VR confines, becomes a humanoid robot and terrorizes the population of downtown Los Angeles. Disgraced ex-cop Parker Barnes is released from prison and guaranteed freedom in exchange for tracking the AI maniac down.
Directed by Brett Leonard (who also helmed The Lawnmower Man), Virtuosity is chiefly memorable for its unusually excellent cast. Denzel Washington plays Barnes, there’s a brace of Williams among the supporting actors (Fichtner and Forsythe), and most noteworthy of all, Russell Crowe plays the killing machine SID 6.7. This was, however, before Crowe grabbed Oscar attention for roles in things like Gladiator and The Insider, and he started taking himself too seriously, which explains why he prances around like The Joker in Virtuosity. He wears baggy, sparkly purple suits, has his hair gelled into a jaunty side-parting, and shouts humoros taunts at Denzel Washington (“I’ve just done a little performance piece on your partner!”).
Basically, this is what would happen if Max Headroom read Mein Kampf, went nuts, and ended up in a cheesy ’90s action flick.
7. The Thirteenth Floor (1999)
“You can’t just plug your brain into this machine and not expect to be affected by it.”
Based on Daniel F. Galouye’s ’60s novel Simulacron-3, The Thirteenth Floor is a collision of sci-fi and film noir. There’s a murder – a computer genius named Hannon Fuller (Armin Mueller-Stahl) – a protagonist attempting to prove he didn’t do it (Craig Bierko), a detective (Dennis Haysbert), and a smoky, shadowy ’30s Los Angeles. The twist, however, is that the ’30s setting is a computer simulation – it’s part of the virtual reality system designed by the dead computer genius.
The Thirteenth Floor‘s relatively restrained use of CG, and its evocative recreation of ’30s LA, means that it’s a less dated-looking movie than some of the others on this list. But there’s also the cloying sense that there’s a better film trying to get out; in fact, some of The Thirteenth Floor‘s reality-bending ideas are also remarkably similar to other movies of the late ’90s, which deployed their twists with far greater power.
6. Disclosure (1994)
The promise of virtual reality was such that it even managed to make its way into an otherwise grounded thriller about sexual discrimination in the workplace. Starting out as a fairly typical post–Fatal Attraction, post-Basic Instinct erotic thriller, Michael Crichton’s Disclosure introduces Michael Douglas as Tom Sanders, a tech company boss who gets on the wrong side of high-powered exec Meredith Johnson (Demi Moore). A steamy battle of wits ensues when Johnson’s promoted to a lofty company position above Sanders, which comes to a head when Johnson accuses Sanders of sexual harassment.
All this intrigue leads to an abrupt third-act left-turn, where Sanders leaps into an experimental virtual reality device and uses it to uncover Meredith’s latest plot to have him fired.
With its mechanical keyboards, CRT monitors and comedy goggles, it’s fair to say the technology in Disclosure dates it even more than the big suits and even bigger hair. The use of a VR headset to access a database also raises more questions than it answers; isn’t clicking on an icon with a mouse a quicker process than trudging around a cathedral-like virtual space and flicking through filing cabinets?
5. Johnny Mnemonic (1995)
Four years before he took the red pill as Neo in The Matrix, Keanu Reeves starred in another William Gibson-esque thriller – this one actually based on the short story of the same name by, er, William Gibson. Johnny Mnemonic has one of the most brilliantly eclectic casts of any sci-fi film ever: Japanese superstar Takeshi Kitano appears alongside Ice-T, Dolph Lundgren, Udo Kier, and former Black Flag front man Henry Rollins.
The plot’s a similarly heady concoction: in a future where data can easily be stolen by hackers, Johnny (Reeves) works as a courier who delivers sensitive information by storing it in his own head. When Johnny agrees to take on a huge payload of data, which is so big that it overwrites a load of his own childhood memories, he finds himself on the hit list of both a cold-blooded corporation and the Japanese mafia, who want the information for themselves.
Positively stuffed with quaint special effects – blocky computer graphics, angular set designs with copious blue lighting and even a smattering of scale miniatures – and heavy on the chases and gun fights, Johnny Mnemonic is also quite prophetic. As several recent hacks and leaks have proved, some data really is too sensitive to be left floating back and forth across the net.]
4. The Matrix (1999)
In terms of box office, here it is: the decade’s high watermark. At the time, The Matrix looked so bang-on-trend, with its slick haircuts and curvy sunglasses, that it was easy to overlook just how batty its high-concept was. Dragging in inspiration from anime, highbrow philosophy, classical literature, and heroic bloodshed Hong Kong action flicks (though without too much bloodshed), The Matrix was a cocktail of science fiction and multiplex-rocking explosions.
Expert hacker Neo (Keanu Reeves) is led down a techno rabbit warren by enigmatic mentor Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) and learns that his buttoned-down reality is actually a computer simulation. Sentient machines have long since taken over the planet, turned the human race into batteries, and created the Matrix – a simulated version of the late ’90s which keeps everybody nice and passive while their energy’s gradually sucked out of them.
Armed with this knowledge, Neo joins a resistance group of humans plucked from the grid and learns that by essentially treating the simulated reality like a videogame, he can exploit its glitches and move around like a leather-clad superhero.
Causing a sensation for its eye-popping action when it first emerged, it’s perhaps inevitable that The Matrix‘s once cutting-edge effects are its most dated aspect. And while I’d argue that the Wachowskis’ blockbuster wasn’t the best virtual reality movie of the ’90s, it still managed to smuggle an interesting, intelligent cyberpunk story into a crowd-pleasing, multiplex film – something many other filmmakers tried and failed to achieve.
3. Dark City (1998)
I initially balked at including Dark City on this list since it’s entirely free from the cumbersome helmets, haptic gloves and other trappings of the ’90s virtual reality thriller. But while the tech isn’t on display, it still taps into some of the same preoccupations as many of the other films mentioned here. Like The Thirteenth Floor, it’s a sci-fi noir, but Dark City‘s claustrophobic atmosphere and nightmarish imagery place it in an entirely separate league.
Rufus Sewell plays Murdoch, a bewildered amnesiac who wakes up in a hotel room in a grimy, benighted metroplis, having apparently just committed a vicious murder. Fleeing the scene, he’s pursued by a bald, pale group of men called the Strangers, who seem to hold the key to Murdoch’s memory loss and even the true nature of the city itself.
Superbly directed by Alex Proyas, populated with a top quality cast (Kiefer Sutherland, Jennifer Connelly, Richard O’Brien, and William Hurt), and beautifully shot by Dariusz Wolski, Dark City predated The Matrix by one year and could be considered its brooding, more contemplative cousin. Barely making a dent on the box office, it has since become a cult classic – and deservedly so.
2. Strange Days (1995)
This expensive sci-fi thriller had a fantastic pedigree, with a script co-written by James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow as director, yet, like too many intelligent, mainstream films in the ’90s, it failed to find a ready audience. Taking place at the end of the millennium, Strange Days explores the voyeuristic, troubling possibilities of future technology without the pulpit sermonising of Brainscan.
The film imagines a device which allows its users to enjoy the vicarious thrill of other people’s experiences, from orgies to robberies to murder. Ralph Fiennes plays Lenny Nero, a sleazy, Max Renn-like dealer in these kinds of memories. When a disc containing what looks like a brutal killing lands in Nero’s lap, he’s drawn into a knotty and disturbing conspiracy.
Unlike a lot of saturated ’90s visions of the near future, Bigelow’s turn-of-the-millennium Los Angeles looks grounded and realistic; her version of virtual reality is also rendered without too much use of distracting CGI, which means Strange Days looks less dated than most other thrillers of its vintage.
Strange Days is superbly acted (Angela Bassett, Tom Sizemore and Vincent D’Onofrio are all great), expertly paced and occasionally quite disturbing. In his 1995 review, the late Roger Ebert predicted that Strange Days would become a cult film. If it hasn’t yet, it certainly deserves to; it’s one of the few ’90s films to successfully imagine what a world with VR technology might actually look like.
1. eXistenZ (1999)
This David Cronenberg masterpiece – one of his last true ‘body horror’ movies – had the misfortune to appear within weeks of the similarly-themed Matrix. I can still recall going to the cinema to watch both; one screening was absolutely full, while the other was empty save for myself and about three other people. One of them got up and left when someone in the film got their cheek shot off.
Although both The Matrix and eXistenZtap into the same PlayStation-era zeitgeist, the two movies are as different as chalk and chainsaws. Where The Matrixis all shiny surfaces and slick, gun-fu action, eXistenZ is more glacial, fleshy, and disturbing. In fact, Cronenberg used far more CGI than is first apparent, yet his greater emphasis on prosthetic effects gives the film a more timeless, classic look.
ExistenZ is a dizzying, paranoid thriller about a legendary game designer (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who goes on the run with a security guard (Jude Law) when a terrorist group attempt to assassinate her. From the very beginning, the film immerses us in a world where everything seems slightly askew – none of the actors talk with their own accents, consoles look like foetuses, and everything’s been given glaringly literal names (a country gas station has “Country Gas Station” painted on the front). Has Cronenberg lost his touch? Hardly. As the protagonists escape into a VR game, which in turn launches them into a further simulated reality, they – and we – begin to lose track of what’s artificial and what isn’t.
Cronenberg has great fun with all this, even pausing to comment that what we’re watching is itself an artificial reality (“there were far too many twists at the end”). The film’s numerous visual non-sequiturs also turn out to have a startling and ingenious significance in the final reel.
Like so many of these films from the ’90s, eXistenZ looks at what might happen when the realm of games becomes indistinguishable from everyday life. But because this is a David Cronenberg film – who’s one of the least reactionary directors to work in sci-fi and horror – eXistenZ considers the dark, sensual, even erotic highs of this experience.
The film’s other strand, about a creator hunted by extremists, was inspired by the terrifying experiences Salman Rushdie faced after the publication of his novel, The Satanic Verses. You only have to turn on the news to realize that this part of eXistenZ is still chillingly relevant.