The Lawnmower Man

Weekend Roundtable: Virtualitosity

Perhaps the most far-fetched thing in ‘Ready Player One’ is the idea that people in the future will actually give a damn about Virtual Reality. That hasn’t proven to be true in real life so far. Nevertheless, here are some memorable depictions of it – both good and bad – from movies and TV.

Brian Hoss

Best: The recent Netflix series ‘Altered Carbon‘ does some impressive work with the concept of too-real Virtual Reality. Specifically, it depicts a virtual environment used for torture and interrogation that feels real to the victim, complete with horrific emotional reenactments to go with the physical torture. The way that the assailant takes part of the VR construct and how that develops add the right amount of depth to make it all interesting.

Worst: Dialing up this particular public TV-grade movie might seem unfair, but ‘Overdrawn at the Memory Bank‘ commits the cardinal VR sin of making a completely rote environment. I’m not talking about the baboon life, though that does seem like an underwhelming way to go. No, it’s Aram Fingal’s crummy ‘Casablanca’ world. Few things are as transparently sad and unoriginal as trying to glob onto another movie’s immense nostalgia by way of constant direct reference.

M. Enois Duarte

In the span of three months during the spring of 1999, three science-fiction movies hit theaters with similar plots: the growing popularity of realistic video games and simulated reality. Of those three, ‘The Thirteenth Floor‘ was largely ignored by mainstream moviegoers, but has built a steadily growing cult following, so I’d like to give a bit more love.

Unlike its two counterparts, this Roland Emmerich-produced feature, loosely inspired by Daniel F. Galouye’s book ‘Simulacron-3’, is actually a neo-noir crime thriller at heart. In fact, the simulated world is 1937 Los Angeles, and in order for the main character Douglas Hall to uncover who murdered his boss and mentor in the real 1999 L.A., we travel back and forth between both worlds until the line separating reality from fantasy slowly blurs. The real twist of this entertaining flick is less about learning the killer’s identity and more about seeing the characters question their reality.

Granted, the movie may not be as philosophically challenging and complex as ‘The Matrix’, or even as cerebral and thought-provoking as David Cronenberg’s ‘eXintenZ’, but it’s nonetheless a clever and fun popcorn flick, perfect for a lazy Sunday afternoon watch.

Luke Hickman

I may have mentioned this in past Roundtables, but growing up, my mom ran a day care out of our home. Among her clients were a couple from the Philippines and their two kids. The parents owned and ran a video rental store at the dawn of home video. Every other weekend (it seems) they would lend us a VCR (remember when you had to rent those?) and a couple movies. One of the regular rentals that we checked out was the original ‘Tron‘. In it, Jeff Bridges’ character (Flynn) gets sucked into “The Grid,” which is the inner world of a computer. Although the effects are now wildly outdated and cheesy, they were amazing at the time.

Flynn’s trip into the Grid had long-lasting impact on my childhood. My brothers and I couldn’t play frisbee without turning it into a ‘Tron’-based game that involved pegging one another with it. Any time we went night swimming, once the pool light came on, we started drinking pool water simply because it faintly glowed like the life-giving water in the Grid. Although ‘Tron: Legacy’ wasn’t the sequel we fans wanted it to be, it at least upgraded the look of the Grid to be the way I imagined it in my head when my brothers and I would recreate it as children.

Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)

When my thoughts turn towards virtual reality, I can’t help but recall the pulse-pounding thrills of Michael Douglas sifting through some corporate files on a remote mainframe.

In 1994’s ‘Disclosure‘, all sorts of backstabbing and betrayals await Douglas’ Tom Sanders on his way to the top of the CD-ROM world. What else would you expect from a soulless corporate behemoth like DigiCom, which is about to gobble up the comparatively modest little company where Sanders works? To track down proof of the conspiracy to oust him before the merger goes through, Sanders slyly sneaks his way into DigiCom’s mainframe.

Come on, though; we’re talking about a big-budget thriller here, and there’s nothing the least bit cinematic about someone lazily clicking through a bunch of files in Windows Explorer. The answer, of course, is Virtual Reality.

The way this sequence unfolds will no doubt be eerily familiar to VR enthusiasts even after nearly a quarter of a century. The same as you do with your Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, Sanders starts by slipping on his single cyber-glove. He plants both feet squarely onto the infini-stand. As an array of blue lights slowly scan every inch of his body, Sanders dons the VR headset, connected to a computer with a pair of 80-foot-long ribbon cables. He’s in!

Needless to say, Sanders isn’t simply going to be presented with a long list of files. No, he’s instead transported to a computer-generated palace that’s as barren as it is needlessly gigantic. The place is also a death trap, measuring somewhere in the neighborhood of 17,000 stories, with no railing to keep him from plummeting to a virtual demise as the floors shift around chaotically. (Remember, we’re talking about a file browser here!) Anyway, he eventually stumbles upon a series of virtual filing cabinets, complete with a bunch of virtual file folders inside. Sanders manipulates the contents in 3D space as if it were microfiche in the public library, with seemingly no ability to filter or search.

But wait! Will our embattled hero uncover the proof he so desperately needs of this conspiracy before Demi Moore’s howlingly ridiculous-looking CG-avatar swoops in? Can your heart handle the strain of knowing that Donald Sutherland and his corporate goons are on the elevator back to the VR Suite right now? How far will your eyes roll in the back of your head as the “kill” command is used on a UNIX platform to delete files rather than to terminate a currently running process? The good news is that ‘Disclosure’ is on Blu-ray and available from fine retailers everywhere, and all the answers you’re aching for are just a couple of clicks away. No VR headset necessary, even!

Josh Zyber

Yes, we all like ‘The Matrix‘. The movie’s a sci-fi classic and it’s been discussed in a number of previous Roundtables. Let’s just take that as a given.

My interests in this topic lean toward the cheesiest and dopiest depictions of VR, and you can’t get much cheesier or dopier than ‘The Lawnmower Man‘. The movie’s so bad that Stephen King sued to have his name taken off the advertising. Allegedly based on a King short story that had nothing to do with computers or VR, the movie version kept the title and little else. A pre-007 Pierce Brosnan stars as a brilliant scientist whose experiments to enhance the intelligence of his intellectually challenged gardener (crazy-haired Jeff Fahey) inadvertently turn the man into an evil cyber-god inside a Virtual Reality world consisting of CGI graphics that honestly looked pretty crappy even in 1992. The movie is dumb as hell, but has become something of a camp classic over time.

I also need to mention ‘Harsh Realm‘, a short-lived TV series from 1999 that few others likely remember at all. Riding high off the success of ‘The X Files’ in its prime, creator Chris Carter concocted a new sci-fi drama about a soldier who gets trapped in a VR military combat simulation forming a perfect replica of the real world down to every man, woman and child. The plausibility of this concept gets stretched to absurd limits pretty quickly. We’re told that the program was created using “the 1990 census, satellite cartography and other classified data,” which is supposed to explain how the simulation renders ridiculously specific details, such as when the main character finds his favorite childhood snowglobe in the bombed-out shell of his parents’ house. Computer-generated “Virtual Characters” based on the likenesses of real people even share their real-world counterparts’ thoughts and memories. If Carter ever planned to explain how this VR computer game could read people’s minds, the show was canceled before he got the chance.

Speaking of nearly-forgotten ’90s TV, the Oliver Stone-produced cyberpunk miniseries ‘Wild Palms‘ debuted with a lot of buzz and initially high ratings in the summer of 1993, but most of the audience dropped out before its five parts were over when none of them could figure out what the hell the damn thing was about. Set in the technologically advanced near-future of 2007, Jim Belushi stars as a patent attorney who gets wrapped up in a conspiracy by a billionaire media mogul/U.S. Senator/cult leader (Robert Loggia) working to introduce a new VR technology into people’s homes that will allow them to physically interact with holographic projections of their favorite idiotic sitcom. The technology may also happen to brainwash everyone into voting for the Senator, but that surely must be a weird coincidence, right? The story is a confusing mess and the sci-fi concepts look really hokey in retrospect, but the miniseries was also ambitiously stylized and atmospheric. Among the feature filmmakers who worked on it were Keith Gordon (‘A Midnight Clear’), Phil Joanou (‘State of Grace’) and future Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow. The show somehow managed to incorporate the idiosyncratic vision of each director into a larger consistent framework. (Bigelow threw in a pretty cool shoot-out at the end of her episode.)

Your Turn

Which movies or TV shows have done a good job depicting Virtual Reality? Which are the worst? Tell us in the Comments.


  1. Bolo

    There’s lots of good VR movies out there. If ‘The Matrix’ is off the table, then it’s hard to say which would then be my next favourite. I quite liked ‘Total Recall’ and ‘Strange Days’. I felt they both had a good grasp on how people relate to entertainment (and on people in general).

    The few things I can criticize about ‘Total Recall’ are that it has somewhat cheap production value for a blockbuster; and the casting of Schwarzenegger robs the earlier chapters of some of their impact. When Hauser starts doing action hero stuff and killing people, it’s not really shocking because he’s played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. I always thought that the original choice of Jeff Bridges probably would’ve been more effective, but then they did a remake with slicker production value and a non-action star in the lead role, but it ended up being a far weaker movie. The original film demonstrates Verhoeven’s genius ability to satirize the genre he’s also successfully delivering.

    As for the worst, that’s easy. ‘Vanilla Sky’ is one of the most screechingly embarrassing movies I’ve ever seen. I’m a Tom Cruise fan and I just felt sorry for the guy trying to carry this ridiculous film. I also enjoyed generally Cameron Crowe’s sentimentalist fare back in the 90’s. The film is just so wrongheaded, it’s painful to watch. It’s like a version of ‘A Christmas Carol’ that forgets to have the part where Scrooge learns something and is also completely oblivious to how unlikeable he is.

  2. DarthGilman

    “Perhaps the most far-fetched thing in ‘Ready Player One’ is the idea that people in the future will actually give a damn about Virtual Reality”
    I just love how supposedly knowledgeable pundits on tech sites are so quick to write off VR despite there being so many examples in history of “fads” that didn’t die despite similarly short-sighted predictions.
    In the mid-90s many tech people who should know better wrote lengthy articles about why Internet/World Wide Web could never catch on outside of colleges and a few accounting firms.
    In the early 80s, most tech magazines declared video game consoles deader than the Pet Rock and the Hula Hoop.
    We’ve really only have had consumer VR for two years. Before someone says “Virtuaboy”- not VR by any stretch of the imagination).
    Meanwhile, the first sound movies were being made over three decades before sound in movies was considered the standard and not just a gimmick.
    It took over four decades before the number of color movies exceeded the number color movies produced and color was no longer considered a gimmick.
    It also took about forty years after its introduction before most movies had polyphonic sound.
    It took five years before VHS VCRs were anything more than an expensive luxury item that rich people used to record the Tonight Show and watch pre-recorded movies that cost $100+ (+$300 today).
    So declaring VR “dead” after just two years seem a bit premature and shortsighted.

    • I think you’re very conveniently “forgetting” how poor the early sound systems for movies were, and how cumbersome they were to use, when you dismiss the Virtualboy and other early VR systems, like the VFX1 from 1995, or the Virtualy Group Arcade Machines from 1991, in an attempt to claim that VR tech is just two years old.

      VR has been around for decades, and for all practical purposes, the 1991 machines were on par with THE JAZZ SINGER in terms of maturity.

  3. photogdave

    Overdrawn At The Memory Bank is one of the best MST3K episodes ever!
    Didn’t cure me of my love for Cinemas though…

  4. plissken99

    Virtuosity with Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe. It’s a completely forgettable movie despite the leads, both of which even give half decent performances.

  5. Elizabeth

    I remember enjoying the show VR5 when it was on. Of course it was on Fox so quickly got the axe.

    As for Lawnmower Man, the fact that Stephen King didn’t like it doesn’t really mean much. He also hated Kubrick’s bastardization of The Shining.

  6. William Henley

    Maybe it was because I was 12 when Lawnmower Man came out, but I didn’t think it was that bad (when it came out). Virtual Reality was a new concept, so the idea that you could increase someone’s intelligence by flashing lights at them was an intriguing concept. And I don’t think there had been a movie up to this time that had this amount of CGI in it, so with as bad as the final of the movie was, it was clearly setup to to showcase the CGI. If you think it was bad, check out The Mind’s Eye and Beyond the Mind’s Eye, both of which came out roughly around this time to showcase CGI.

    That said, the movie hasn’t aged well at all. But it was a unique concept when it came out, and played on pop culture.

    • Yeah, I enjoyed the Lawnmower man a lot myself. But, when I first saw it, I watced the director’s cut. Trimming the movie down from 141 minutes to 103 for the theatrical release, really hurt the movie. I watched the theatrical cut much later, and I thought the movie didn’t make any sense at all in this version.

      Actually, I think this was the first time I was even aware of the concept of a director’s cut. It’s either this movie or Stargate.

      • William Henley

        Come to think of it, I am unsure if I ever saw the theatrical cut – i am almost positive the original vhs release was the director’s cut

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