Virtual reality is really coming into its own these days, with VR technology being used in surprising ways across many areas of our everyday life. More than a few movies from our recent past had weird and crazy ideas about how VR technology might develop. Back in the '80s and '90s, VR was still in its nascency, so in the early days of using virtual reality in the movies, creators had some trippy ideas about how the technology might be used or abused. While The Matrix is undoubtedly the most famous, there are plenty of other, more ridiculous, movies that featured VR technology. While some of depictions seemed cutting edge at the time, they seem downright silly in retrospect. Other interpretations of VR, however, were scarily accurate.
Whether utopia or dystopia, sci-fi thriller or existential drama, here are some of the craziest non-Matrix virtual reality movies that explore the digital world.
A classic way ahead of its time, Tron is one of the first movies to explore the concept of a virtual world inside a computer, and navigating said world with a digital avatar. Flynn (Jeff Bridges), in an attempt to hack the corporation that swallowed up his video game company, gets beamed into a computer by an artificial intelligence and is forced to compete on a "game grid" — where digital gladiators battle to the death inside a neon colored digital maze.
Game-changing concepts and visuals from this early 'scif-fi/80s fantasy influenced many stories to come, and was one of the first movies to use computer generated graphics. It later became a huge influence on science fiction, inspiring The Matrix, Lawnmower Man, and of course, Tron: Legacy.
Directed by: Steven Lisberger
What if the virtual reality spaces you explored were someone else's dreams, and by extension, the hidden corners of someone's mind? In Inception, Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) leads a crack team of specialists through several layers of dreams within dreams in order to plant an idea for the purposes of corporate sabotage.
Through the use of one of his specialists, known as the architect (Ellen Page), travelers inside the dream space can bend the rules of physics and shift the landscape to help make the mission go smoothly. While not a digital experience, the simulated reality in Inception is still a fascinating exploration of the medium.
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
In The Thirteenth Floor, virtual reality is used to painstakingly recreate a city in the 1930s, a facsimile intended to be the world of an elaborate video game. When one of the computer scientists at the game company gets murdered, his colleague Douglas Hall (Craig Bierko) goes inside the game space to investigate clues that can point to the culprit.
Similar to Dark City, this version of virtual reality is a world where virtual characters have real emotions, and can hurt or kill you while inside the simulation. Ideally, those safeguards will be in place when scientists crack virtual reality for real.
Directed by: Josef Rusnak
The world of Strange Days accurately predicted the way the porn industry would come to harness virtual reality technology to titillate and thrill. In this world, Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) is a street hustler who sells POV immersive sex videos — basically voyeuristic movies inside virtual reality. Things take a dark turn when a serial killer records his exploits, and starts putting his virtual reality snuff videos on the black market. Given the terrifying and tragic things people have done with live streaming, it's easy to see the dark side of VR technology.
Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow