Shawn Levy’s upcoming video game-set sci-fi comedy Free Guy starring Ryan Reynolds comes from a long line of films about virtual/simulated reality. Obvious entries in the genre include The Matrix franchise, the Jumanji, and Space Jam reboots, and Spielberg’s Ready Player One. But when once you’re plugged into the grid, these deeper cut entries might finally convince you to log off forever.
TRON, 1982 (dir. Steven Lisberger)
The mother of all video game or virtual reality films. TRON writer-director-producer Steven Lisberger took inspiration from early video games like Pong. He shopped a 30-second animation to many studios before Disney backed the project. One of the earliest movies to utilize heavy GGI to bring its world to life, TRON follows ENCOM software engineer Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) who gets trapped inside a video game by an artificial intelligence called Master Control Program (voiced by David Warner). Flynn must partner with a security program called Tron (Bruce Boxleitner), who looks just like his real-life partner Alan Bradley (also Boxleitner) to escape the program and end MCP’s reign over the company.
The Lawnmower Man, 1992 (dir. Brett Leonard)
Although the film shares the title of a Stephen King short story, the film differs so greatly from the source material that King successfully sued to have his name removed from the film. It follows Dr. Lawrence Angelo (Pierce Brosnan) who conducts cognitive experiments on chimpanzees using psychoactive drugs and virtual reality. Things go awry when he begins experimenting on intellectually disabled greenskeeper named Jobe Smith (Jeff Fahey), who develops psychokinesis and telepathy, eventually becoming obsessed with leaving his body to be an evolved digital being.
Arcade, 1993 (dir. Albert Pyun)
Written by David S. Goyer, this film follows troubled teen Alex Manning (Megan Ward), who deals with the trauma of her mother’s death by visiting a video game arcade known as Dante’s Inferno. There she and her friends discover a virtual reality game called Arcade, whose unscrupulous developers implanted its main antagonist with the brain cells of a boy who was beaten to death by his mother to make the villain more realistic. You read that right.
Virtuosity, 1995 (dir. Brett Leonard)
Not happy with one VR-centered film, director Brett Leonard tried again with this truly bonkers cat-and-mouse crime thriller. In a world where people live much of their lives in virtual reality, the LAPD is on the hunt for SID (Russell Crowe) aka Sadistic, Intelligent, Dangerous; a VR amalgam of the most violent serial killers throughout history. When SID somehow manages to manifest in the real world on Lieutenant Parker Barnes (Denzel Washington), a detective who had been serving jail time for murder, can track him down. Come for the CGI virtual worlds, stay for Crowe’s truly unhinged performance.
Strange Days, 1995 (dir. Kathryn Bigelow)
Set on the brink of the new millennium, Kathryn Bigelow’s sci-fi neo noir was a box office bomb when first released. But now, the movie is widely considered a prescient masterpiece. Ralph Fiennes stars as an ex-cop named Lenny Nero who now sells other people’s memories and sensations via MiniDisc-like devices called SQUIDs on the black market. When Nero discovers a snuff-life SQUID, he partners with Lornette “Mace” Mason (Angela Bassett) to solve the crime. Originally conceived by James Cameron in the mid-80s, Bigelow added elements of female victimization, racial oppression, and economic disparity in response to the Lorena Bobbitt trial and the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
eXistenZ, 1999 (dir. David Cronenberg)
I would be remiss not to mention this classic from the master body horror himself, David Cronenberg. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays a game designer named Allegra Geller who finds herself the target of assassins while playing a VR game she designed, the titular eXistenZ. Cronenberg came up with the plot after interviewing Salman Rushdie while he was in hiding due to the Fatwa put on his life following the release of his book The Satanic Verses.
Gamer, 2009 (dir. Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor)
After becoming the richest man in the world for creating a virtual community life simulation game called Society, computer programmer Ken Castle (Michael C. Hall) creates another game called Slayer, a first person shooter where death row inmates compete to gain their freedom. John “Kable” Tillman (Gerard Butler) is one such inmate, controlled by wealthy teenager Simon (Logan Lerman). Things ramp up when an activist group insists that the game will eventually be used to control all of society against their will and Castle creates a new player (Terry Crews) for the sole purpose of assassinating crowd favorite Tillman.
TRON Legacy, 2010 (dir. Joseph Kosinski)
In this direct sequel to the 1982 film, Kevin Flynn’s son Sam (Garrett Hedlund) is now the primary shareholder of ENCOM. When he is also sucked into the grid while investigating his father’s disappearance, he meets Clu (Codified Likeness Utility), his father’s avatar, warrior/Jules Verne fan Quorra (Olivia Wilde), the flamboyant Zuse/Castor (Michael Sheen) and intelligence officer Jarvis (James Frain). Navigating this world, Sam must come to terms with the dangerous digital legacy left behind by his father. Featuring a bombastic score by Daft Punk, the duo have a cameo as DJs in the End of Line Club.
The Zero Theorem, 2013 (dir. Terry Gilliam)
Vaguely serving as the third film in what has been dubbed Gilliam’s Orwellian triptych, along with Brazil and 12 Monkeys. Christoph Waltz plays an eccentric programmer named Qohen who believes he hung up on a call that may have given him the meaning of life. When not working to solve the titular Zero Theorem, Qohen spends time on a virtual beach with a mysteriously femme fatale (Mélanie Thierry). In the end Qohen discovers that perhaps “real life” has no meaning after all.
Serenity, 2019 (dir. Steven Knight)
Spoilers ahoy! Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey) lives an idyllic life as a fisherman on the remote Plymouth Island. Obsessed with catching an evasive giant yellowfin tuna named Justice, his life is turned upside down when his ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathaway) tracks him down and asks him to help her kill her abusive new husband Frank (Jason Clarke). This all seems like normal neo-noir fare, until the third act revelation that Baker and everyone on Plymouth Island are actually artificial intelligence characters created by his son as a way for him to cope with his abusive stepfather!