This video essay interrogates cinematic representations of immersive technologies in mainstream Hollywood films, through a comparative approach. In particular, it isolates and excavates the transitionary moment of each of the films - when the male protagonist traverses the real-to-virtual world boundary. The essay shows how these moments share a number of common characteristics which function in very specific gender-coded ways.
Drawing on excerpts from 10 films - the essay traces the evolution of representations of immersive technologies across a 17-year period from 1982-1999 before drawing a direct comparison to the recent example of Ready Player One (2018). Crucially, the essay takes these transitionary moments in isolation as a site for close interrogation and comparison, favouring a granular analysis as opposed to a wider examination the filmic narratives in their entirety.
The essay illustrates how these earlier representations of immersive hardware - including 3D body image scanning; 360-degree Virtual Reality (VR); live motion capture and gestural interfaces; Augmented Reality (AR) eyewear-ware and biotechnological human implants - have paved the way for their acceptance and integration into contemporary society, as well as establishing VR within the cultural imaginary as male-coded technology. Virtual Reality is used in the title and throughout the video and this supporting statement as shorthand to account for a range of virtual technologies which enable the wearer to traverse the real-to-virtual boundary.
The 1990s was a period when digital postproduction techniques were advancing apace as was the evolution of computer-generated imagery. The audio-visual essay itself uses regressive stylistics and aesthetics of 1990s screen media as the lens through which to contextualise and frame these representations. The essay is accompanied by an 1990s analogue/digital noisescape – which is used to convey a dystopian dysfunctionality which reflects the cultural fears around technology in such films which ‘thematise the ’threat’ of digital media’ (Spielman, 2003: 59) and are ‘not simply technophobic, but specifically mediaphobic” (Young, 1999: 27).
Split-screen and audio-mixing techniques are used as a mechanism to draw direct comparisons between the transitionary moments of each film. These are characterised by a number of recurring tropes which I have broken down into the following four temporally ordered elements – Loading, Jacking in, Skinning and Flying through. The use of gaming terminology purposefully underscores the complex interrelations between computer games technologies and imagery and the dominant aesthetics of VR. This relationship is evident across all the films analysed here and is played out in the contemporary convergence between games, film and VR technologies as well as the success of VR within the gaming sector.
Part I: Loading: This is the first stage of the transitionary process where the (male) protagonist is seen using the latest technology of the time (the 1980-90s) to prepare for the real-to-virtual transition. These representations of the technologies of the future are littered with the vestiges of their own now obsolete technological past. These all carry with them the indelible technological timestamp of the period in which they were created. This leads to an interesting and often contradictory aesthetic in which (digital) futuristic technological imaginaries are inflected with the present-day (analogue) realities (and their limitations).
Part II: Jacking in: This is an analogue description of the moment of digital transition - a jack is an analogue technology – a piece of electrical hardware that enables a signal connection. The term is taken from The Matrix, in which an analogue style jack is plugged into the protagonist’s neck and enables his digitisation into cyber space. The moment of ‘Jacking on’ is depicted in the film clips as a simultaneous and violent rupture of flesh, time and space, a violent, transgressive and painful re-birth into the virtual domain. The birthing metaphor extends into the maternal roles women often play within each of the real to virtual transitional moments. All of the female characters are seen in service to the male protagonist as they ‘deliver’ them into the virtual world and guide them through their first steps (as Faith holds Lenny’s hands in Strange Days as he struggles to roller skate); and through their first mistakes as in the Lawnmower Man – where we see the character of Dr. Lawrence Angelo (played by Pierce Brosnan) held in a cradled position, waving his hands in the air as if he is playing in a baby gym and scolded as if a naughty child. Women’s other predominant function is as content that can be customised and upgraded as seen most explicitly in Total Recall.
Part III: Skinning: This is a term taken from gaming - a ‘skin’ is virtual asset that players can acquire in order to alter the appearance of their avatar. In the video essay, skinning refers to the moment when the protagonist first experiences the embodiment of their digital self. All of the clips are characterised by the first-person point-of-view of computer gaming and all are similar in the trope of the character marvelling at the appearance of their own hands.
Part IV: Flying through: The final and most spectacular stage of the real to virtual transitionary moment is the ‘virtual fly through’ of the computer-generated environment. It is a showcase moment designed to flex the capabilities of the latest cinematic technologies and advancements in CGI. In this final sequence, I use a simultaneous cinematic triptych to draw a direct comparison between the ‘virtual showcase’ fly-throughs of Tron (1982), Disclosure (1994) and Ready Player One (2018) - these collectively represent almost 40 years of CGI and digital postproduction development - and each signal landmark moments in the history of digital technologies in cinema. Tron was one of cinema's earliest films to use extensive CGI; Disclosure’s virtual reality sequence was designed by Industrial Light & Magic who have gone on to be an industry defining organisation pioneering VFX technologies and techniques and who then went on to produce Ready Player one. From frame-based vector graphics to CAD-based architectural renderings, to visually complex photorealistic imagery, the creative leaps are clearly huge across these three examples. But this juxtaposition reveals something far more interesting - a clear continuity of cinematic storytelling practice and visual style. The three disparate sequences are practically temporally identical and there are stark similarities between the first-person game aesthetics, the accompanying orchestral overtures, the fluid virtual camera which flies the protagonist/audience over and through the immersive digital landscapes.
Uncovering these serendipitous and often uncanny similarities are the unique affordances of the video essay, making it the ideal format for this particular argument.
Spielmann, Yvonne. "Elastic Cinema: Technological Imagery in Contemporary Science Fiction Films." Convergence 9.3 (2003): 56-73.
Young, Paul. "The Negative Reinvention of Cinema: Late Hollywood in the Early Digital Age." Convergence 5.2 (1999): 24-50.
Tron (1982, dir. Steven Lisberger)
They Live (dir. John Carpenter, 1988)
Total Recall (dir. Paul Verhoeven, 1990)
Lawnmower Man (dir. Brett Leonard, 1992)
Disclosure (dir: Barry Levinson, 1994)
Strange Days (dir: Kathryn Bigelow, 1995)
Existenz (dir. David Cronenberg, 1999)
The Matrix (dir. Lana & Lilly Wachowski, 1999)
The Thirteenth Floor (dir. Josef Rusnak, 1999)
Ready Player One (dir: Stephen Spielberg, 2018)
Sarah Atkinson is Professor of Screen Media at King's College London and co-editor of Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies. Sarah has published widely on the film, cinema and screen industries including extensive work into the Live Cinema economy. She has worked on numerous funded immersive media projects and virtual reality initiatives. Sarah also adopts practice-based methodologies through the creation of her own original works which include video essays, an interactive documentary, immersive experiences and short films (including Live Cinema – walking the tightrope between stage and screen - nominated for a 2020 Learning on Screen Award).