Filmmakers and screenwriters have been imagining the possibilities of virtual reality far before the technology became a viable commodity.
VR in film has appeared as a means by which aliens or corporations control populations and safeguard their dominion, often in hand with humans embracing the technology as a means to elude the responsibilities and difficulties of reality by way of delusion. “Total Recall” (1990), for example, spins an action drama out of VR’s power to deceive and manipulate for capital gain, heightening suspense by putting our sense of reality into question.
Many films have focused on the ability of VR to render human beings docile and inactive, by force or choice. In “Dark City” (1998), parasitic aliens fabricate an alternate reality out of memories to control and study the minds of humans. An exceptional hero realizes his power for virtual creation to defeat them. The similar but vastly more well known “The Matrix” (1999) is an action drama set in a future in which man-made machines have enslaved humans, harnessing their energy in electrical fields while creating a virtual fantasy for their minds.
The programmed reality, or matrix, is not simply a method for machines to control humans; it too carries a symbiotic function by which humans benefit from the inconsequence of their needless lives. The villain betrays the heroes in exchange for “ignorant bliss.”
While set in a dystopia, “The Matrix” remains optimistic. Humans have become the enablers of their own enslavement—in a not very far-fetched metaphor for present times—but they are also potential revolutionaries. It is easy to become mindless in VR but also possible to use it to expand the mind. While a prison for most of humanity, it is yet a liberating playground for the chosen few, particularly Neo, a kind of Matrix god.
This conflict between VR’s capacity to nurture the imagination and restrict it continues to be explored in film.
Challenging the viability of artistically motivated VR experiences, the Kickstarter-funded “Creative Control” (2015) centers on a man attempting to market a new wearable technology that combines Google glass and virtual reality. Users can utilize their real surroundings as the basis for a virtual canvas. While he initially targets artists by showcasing the creative possibilities of the device, the protagonist surrenders to its potential for pleasure, which is then adopted as the superior marketing approach: men manipulating images of real women to virtually live out sexual fantasies. It portrays how capitalism banks on technology as an escapist illusion offering a limiting form of “control” based on individualist sexual gratification.
Meanwhile, the haunting, melancholic “The Congress” (2013) uses animated virtual reality sequences to explore human relationships and the nature of identity as they confront dehumanizing corporate interests. Humans have abandoned reality to venture into a drug-induced virtual world derived from stored mental images. While it echoes the other films’ darker implications of VR as an alienating mental escape, “The Congress” also addresses more philosophical questions of mortality and human connectivity. Real memories form a virtual landscape, wherein their painful real disappearance in death meets their potential renewal within the deeper fabric of shared imaginary spaces.
Film has helped envision the still evolving technology of VR, whose manifestations today are vast and diverse. Cinema, however, continues to insist: do not forget humanity, its individuals but also the whole. If you fall into VR’s sleep, be sure to awaken to its freedom.
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