Last Updated on August 5, 2021
And having seen NERVE, we started thinking about the most effective VR thrillers of its ilk. Movie that, if not overtly taking place in a virtual reality, at least allocate some sort of technological game or program that distorts reality and offers an alternate mode of operation. This differs from movies of mere pranks and elaborate ruses, a la CUBE or APRIL FOOL’S DAY. Ah hell, just cop a peek at our Top 10 Virtual Reality Thrillers above to see exactly what we mean!
Underwhelming remake aside, leave it up to the twisted commingling of Paul Verhoeven and Philip K. Dick to give us one of the greatest nightmarish VR hellscapes ever laid on celliloid in TOTAL RECALL. You know the deal, a virtual vacation ends in a dangerous case of mistaken identity for Arnie the Schwarz, which leads to a surreal Martian escapade that introduces him, and us, to an ungodly spate of otherworldly creatures. Not just the three-titted chica you’re still whacking off to, think about the sinister taxi driver, the oily Cohaagen, that f*cked up mutant-baby Kuato and the rest. So memorable that even over 25 year later the film inspires TOTAL RECALL!
While David Cronenberg is rightly recognized as the preeminent author of onscreen bodily horror, let’s not forget that he has, since the inception of his career, also explored issues of technology and how it directly relates to, or threatens, the human mind. We just gave a wondrous example in EXISTENZ, but it really all started for David with SCANNERS in 1981, and plumbed to even greater depths in his 1983 flick VIDEODROME. Though its VFX have dated somewhat, the jarring surreality of the story has not, nor has the overall entertainment value of watching James Woods slowly lose his mind while being trapped inside sleazily violent, ultra-exploitative world of TV snuff. Great film!
Truth be told, we almost awarded the Stephen King inspired RUNNING MAN the top spot for no other reason than spawning a whole subgenre of imitators…from BATTLE ROYALE to HUNGER GAMES and beyond. Still, a bronze medal ain’t bad for a flick that, while never outright presenting a virtual world, certainly alters the course of reality when broadcasting a deadly-gauntlet gameshow on live television. The slick artifice and glossy production value of the TV program countered by the life-or-death high-stakes execution game make for a wildly surreal experience, one that totally erodes your trust in what is real and what isn’t.
After riding waves with Bodie and Johnny Utah in POINT BREAK and before winning wartime Oscars with THE HURT LOCKER, it was STRANGE DAYS indeed for Kathryn Bigelow. With a star-stidded 90s cast headlined by the great Ralph Fiennes, this weird and wildly imaginative techno-crime-thriller did a tremendous job of exploring the notion of uploaded memories and virtual recall. Data discs that store memories are used, almost like MINORITY REPORT, to solve crimes and provide answers to mysterious questions in the past. When Fiennes’ ex-cop character receives a disc with the memory of a murdered hooker, he must delve deep into a virtual world and find answers. Like, what’s up with Tom Sizemore’s hair?
1999 was a banner year for the world of cinema, so it’s no wonder that David Cronenberg outdid himself with the viscerally charged, deeply though-provoking sci-fi mind-bender EXISTENZ that very year. The movie centers on a futuristic videogame designer who’s on the lam from assassins as she just developed eXistenZ, a new virtual reality game that hasn’t quite worked out all the kinks and bugs. Upon attack, she must protect the game and ensure its survival moving forward. It’s a great union of what Cronenberg does best, bodily horror and technological thriller, as the game console itself resembles a strange organic meat-helmet that conducts neural impulses and catalyzes virtuality. Unique, complex and highly intriguing, EXISTENZ deserves more eyes!
If you could take the 1982 story and meld it with the 2013 VFX, perhaps TRON would rank higher on our list of Virtual Reality thrillers. But since the original FX are so woefully outmoded and since the remake sort of fell flatter than an A-cup, we’ve split the difference and landed mid-tier. Still, you gotta love the Duder himself, Jeff Bridges, for partaking in both versions (not to mention Bruce Boxleitner as Tron), as well as admire the initial premise about a computer hacker conscripted into the digital realm in order to endure a whole swath of gladiatorial obstacles. We certainly do! Made during a time when arcade games reigned supreme, with nascent video-game consoles entering the home, there’s a wistful nostalgia about the technology in these films that cannot be discounted.
What in the Horror happened to little Eddie Furlong? Don’t tell us he was literally swallowed by that malefic virtual demon in BRAINSCAN back in ’94. Say it ain’t so! Honestly though, produced right at the time the internet was made widely accessible, the late John Flynn directed with great verve a story by Andrew Kevin Walker (SE7EN, 8MM) about the blurred line between the real world and the virtual videogame realm. You remember the gist, right? A shut-in horror fan uncovers a mysterious interactive game that enables him to kill people in the digital domain, only to log off to the realization the murder occurred in reality as well. It’s a trippy brain-buster that manages to retain the adolescent fun of its main character, at the same time offering chilling notions of how far the corruption of VR can be taken.
Be honest, how many of you perused THE THIRTEENTH FLOOR in theaters back in 1999? Yeah, me either. That said, when I did finally stumble over the flick on cable one night years later, I was actually taken by just how f*cking bizarre its overall premise was, and how utterly arresting the visual design corresponded. I admired the oddity of it all, even if I felt irreversibly lost throughout. The flick revolves around a virtual recreation of the 1930s that a computer scientist from the present must infiltrate in order to uncover who murdered his colleague. A colleague that created the VR in the first place. Set 25 years after the time it was made, it’s crazy to think we’re now only 8 years away from the events depicted in the film (in 2024). You think the tech in the movie is that far off?
As guilty a pleasure as those two werewolves Neveldine & Taylor could ever dream up, GAMER actually boasts some impressive VFX in terms rendering the videogame realm as a three-dimensional lived-in space. Hell, one might even make the claim that without GAMER, there’d be no RAID and RAID 2. Now what kind of world would that be?! But back to GAMER, about a prisoner who is subjected to a form of mind control that forces him to, at the discretion of a teenage gamer, square off in a series of death-matches with fellow inmates. Ruthless, life-serving inmates! It’s a ridiculously fun time, as always cranked to volume 10 by Neveldine and Taylor as they revel in the unbridled delights of nonstop action sequences.
Oh, 1995. THE NET, JOHNNY MNEMONIC, JUDGE DREDD…a whole raft of futuristic techno-thrillers proliferating in the wake of the internet, yet none outdoing the equally silly but far more credibly acted VIRTUOSITY. I mean, Denzel and Crowe chopping it up 20 years before AMERICAN GANGSTER? The tits! In case you missed this one, the story follows a futuristic police program that digitally compiles all the traits of the worst serial killers in the nation. This is to be uses as a training device for upcoming cops. However, when the program is leaked and the program manifests in a virtual reality, it’s up to ole Denzel to put a stop to the madness once and for all. Designed as a big, dumb, high-concept spectacle, VIRTUOSITY’s plot is actually outdone by its acting.