Transcendence and the return of the 90s cyber thriller

With tech thriller Transcendence out this year, Hollywood seems to be revisiting its 90s fascination with virtual reality, Ryan writes...

Like seasons, hairstyles and fashion, genre popularity in Hollywood runs in cycles. Historical epics have faded in and out of favor since the 1930s, for example, and appear to be on the rise again, with Ridley Scott’s Exodus, Darren Aronofsky’s Noah and two movies based on the Hercules legend all on the horizon. It’s not just historical epics making a comeback, either. With Wally Pfister’s directorial debut Transcendence, we could be in for a mini revival of the cyber thrillers of the 1990s.

If you don’t know anything about Transcendence yet, you can catch up with the first trailer here. Briefly, it’s about a scientist (Johnny Depp) who’s killed by terrorists shortly after completing some groundbreaking research into machine intelligence. Grief stricken, his partner (played by Rebecca Hall) has the scientist’s consciousness uploaded into cyberspace, where his sudden expansion of knowledge and power grow to a worrying extent.

Wally Pfister has built up a formidable reputation as Christopher Nolan’s cinematographer, so it’s little surprise that this, his debut as a director, is beautifully shot and lit. It boasts a sterling cast, too, with Morgan Freeman, Paul Bettany and Cillian Murphy all in supporting roles. Yet behind all that, the plot shares certain elements in common with The Lawnmower Man, a mid-budget sci-fi movie from 1992.

Loosely based on the Stephen King story of the same name (so loosely that King sued to have his name removed from the credits), The Lawnmower Man saw scientist Dr Lawrence Angelo (a pre-Bond Pierce Brosnan) conduct research into the brave new frontier of virtual reality. Angelo uses a mentally disabled gardener named Jobe (Jeff Fahey) as his guinea pig, and inadvertently turns him into a hyper-intelligent being who threatens become a non-corporeal life form and control the planet via its computer systems. 

Ad – content continues below

Now, thrillers and adventure films based around computers weren’t peculiar to the 1990s. There was TronBrainstorm and WarGames in the 80s, and going further back, there was the 1970 sentient computer thriller, Colossus: The Forbin Project, to name a few. But the rise of the term ‘virtual reality’ in the late 1980s seemed to trigger a new iteration of the genre.

The term virtual reality had been kicking around in the 80s, and the idea of stepping into a simulated space was older still – Bradbury’s 1950 short story The Veldt is a disturbing and prescient imagining of the subject. But the term didn’t become familiar to the broader public until the 90s, when media interest in virtual reality technology suddenly exploded.

If you were old enough to be around in 1991, you might possibly have encountered something called Virtuality, a games system which began to filter into arcades at that time. It consisted of a head-mounted display (essentially a large helmet with a pair of LCD screens built into it) a joystick, and a kind of enclosure in which the player stood.

One of the more common games available for the system was called Dactyl Nightmare, where the player could wander around a blocky 3D environment and shoot flying dinosaurs swooping overhead. By modern standards, Dactyl Nightmare looked crude, but back in the 1990s, it was a revelation – you not only saw the environment in 3D, but you could also move around within it, albeit jerkily.

At the time, games like these hinted that a new age was just around the corner: a point where we could actually wander around in virtual spaces and believe that they were real. The technology may not have been quite there yet, but like jet packs and faster-than-light travel, VR felt like a fiction that could soon become reality. 

News reports spoke excitedly about VR’s possible applications. One showed a Japanese woman using virtual reality to help design her new kitchen. There were suggestions that VR could help in therapy, as an aid to cure phobias, or could be used by surgeons during operations.

Ad – content continues below

Among all the optimism, there was a certain amount of fear and uncertainty, too – and this is where The Lawnmower Man came in. At the start of the movie, an opening slab of text captured a sense of ambivalence that is wonderfully 90s:

“By the turn of the millennium [misspelled in the original version] a technology known as virtual reality will be in widespread use. It will allow you to enter computer generated artificial worlds as unlimited as the imagination itself. Its creators foresee millions of positive uses – while others fear it as a new form of mind control…”

Most notable for its then-groundbreaking computer graphics, The Lawnmower Man was an amiably daft thriller, and deserves a footnote in history for containing what is surely the first CG sex scene in movie theater.

The Lawnmower Man also headed up a wave of techno-themed movies, which included the hacking caper Sneakers (1992), low-budget virtual reality horror Arcade (a kind of fusion of Tron and The Lawnmower Man), and Barry Levinson’s Disclosure (1994).

Disclosure’s a particularly interesting example of a 1990s thriller, since its virtual reality plot strand is so extraneous. The movie’s set in a computer company, granted, but it’s a raunchy mystery for the most part, dealing with gender politics in the workplace while Levinson’s camera lingers over Michael Douglas and Demi Moore’s steamy love scenes.

Then, in the final act, a virtual reality machine comes into play, as Douglas’ character uses a particularly high-tech version of the technology to zap himself into a simulated file system (which looks like the interior of a cathedral for some reason) while wearing a pair of welding goggles. If you’ve never seen it before, here’s a snippet from that scene:

A sequence like this dates Disclosure, certainly, but like The Lawnmower Man, it’s an entertaining curio. Hollywood’s fascination with computers and virtual spaces continued throughout the 1990s, and 1995 was a bumper year. There was the paranoid identity theft thriller The Net, starring Sandra Bullock. There was Hackers, in which Jonny Lee Miller and Angelina Jolie made fiddling with the internet look cool and trendy. There were the action films Johnny Mnemonic, starring Keanu Reeves, and Virtuosity, where Russell Crowe played a computer-generated serial killer who escapes into the real world.

Ad – content continues below

Three years later, Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days introduced the idea of a device which could record a person’s memory, allowing them to be experienced directly by others – a kind of virtual reality TiVo. That same year, Alex Proyas’ Dark City gave us a noir thriller set in a shadowy simulated metropolis. In 1999, eXistenZ saw Jude Law and Jennifer Jason-Leigh connect to a virtual space via fleshy consoles and umbilical cord-like USB devices.

Both eXistenZ and another cyber thriller, The Thirteenth Floor, had the misfortune to arrive in the same year as the Wachowskis’ all-conquering action movie, The Matrix. With its big budget, eye-popping stunts and groundbreaking special effects, it took the idea of a computer-generated reality to an explosive conclusion. 

By this point in time, the media interest in VR had long since abated, and the internet had replaced it. The end of the millennium was closing in, and while the prophecy put forward by the opening of The Lawnmower Man hadn’t quite come to pass, the world was indeed beginning to make the leap into cyberspace.

Almost fifteen years since the release of The Matrix, and technology has become an integral part of our daily lives. We haven’t quite been turned into batteries by intelligent machines yet, but we’re seldom more than a few centimetres from a smart phone, tablet or computer of some description.

Transcendence’s 2014 release is timely, since it coincides with the rising interest in a new generation of VR hardware called Oculus Rift. Like the Virtuality tech of the 90s, it consists of a fairly chunky headset, allowing the wearer to look around in a three-dimensional space.

Recently, Eurogamer published an article titled, “Is 2014 the year of virtual reality?”. In it, Dan Whitehead describes his experience of using Oculus Rift, and his reaction to it recaptures the same sense of awe that its forebears in the 90s inspired in some of its users.

Ad – content continues below

“The first time I slipped on that headset, opened my eyes and discovered I was inside a game, I paused,” Dan Whitehead writes. “I instinctively stopped and just looked around. It was an organic “wow” moment. Even the simplest digital space becomes fascinating when you’re ‘there’, which has a refreshing effect on the core basics of gaming.” 

Of course, Transcendence isn’t inspired by Oculus Rift, but like all bits of media, it’s plugged into the zeitgeist. Leaps forward in technology like Siri, Google Glass and Oculus Rift, and constant news reports about hacking and internet privacy permeate our consciousness and, whether by design or osmosis, these bits of information inspire new story ideas.

Google the term virtual reality, and you’ll bring up a range of articles about Oculus Rift in the mainstream media, from the BBC to The Independent. “Virtual reality isn’t just a gaming gimmick, it could improve empathy levels and even reduce racial bias”, a headline states in the latter publication.

Media interest in virtual reality? A movie about a man becoming pure energy in cyberspace? It really does feel like the early 90s again. And shortly before Transcendence, there’s also Spike Jonze’s Her, about a man who falls in love with a Siri-like computer operating system, while next year sees the release of Michael Mann’s hacking-based action thriller, Cyber.

Once again, movies are exploring our fascinations and anxieties about technology. Because while graphics improve and devices become faster and more efficient, our human fears never really change.

Transcendence is out on April 18th.

Ad – content continues below