In March 2014, Mark Zuckerberg announced on Facebook that his company had just acquired the virtual reality headset maker Oculus. At the time, a social media giant like Facebook getting its hands on a nascent VR initiative sounded ominous, and that was before the platform became a font for misinformation during the Donald Trump presidency. “One day, we believe this kind of immersive, augmented reality will become a part of daily life for billions of people,” Zuckerberg wrote in his post. The $2 billion deal hasn’t proved that fruitful thus far, in part because the experience doesn’t yet feel totally immersive. For the time being, at least, the closest approximation of all-encompassing virtual reality is still best found in science fiction.
From the many doomsday scenarios imagined by (and adapted from) Philip K. Dick to wacky tangents on Rick and Morty, television and film have long been interested in the line between what’s real and what’s imagined, as well as the idea that virtual escapism can bring about more harm than good in the wrong hands. (Facebook hoping to get billions hooked on VR headsets definitely sounds like the first line of a dystopian novel or a supervillain’s origin story.) But even though virtual reality hasn’t reached the “Is this really happening?” level of, say, Total Recall, it’s still easier than ever to buy into the idea that nothing around us is real.
In Rodney Ascher’s latest documentary, A Glitch in the Matrix, the filmmaker explores the increasingly widespread belief that what we perceive to be the real world is, in fact, some type of complex simulation. Pulling from sources as varied as Plato and Elon Musk, the documentary takes a measured approach to the followers of simulation theory, some of whom are interviewed through the prism of CGI avatars, an interesting (and slightly goofy) stylistic choice. In the film, Ascher seems less interested in definitively proving or debunking these beliefs than exploring how they are formed and cultivated through the echo chamber of the internet. The scarier implications of simulation theory’s desensitizing effects are also examined through one of the documentary’s interviewees, Joshua Cooke, who chillingly recounts how he murdered his parents in 2003 because he thought he was living in The Matrix. (According to Cooke, he even recited Keanu Reeves’s final lines from the movie before committing the crime.)
The Matrix is probably the poster child of the virtual reality movie, in terms of its broad appeal and wide-ranging influence. But it’s also safe to assume that the vast majority of viewers appreciated the film for the Wachowskis’ distinct visual style, intriguing world-building, and breathtaking action sequences, and didn’t see it as an open invitation to take the red pill. (I’m, like, 98 percent sure we aren’t lying suspended in goop while a bunch of robots have taken over the planet.) Instead it’s other films that have embraced a more ambiguous approach to their virtual worlds—and examined whether those worlds are really worth celebrating.
In Mike Cahill’s Bliss—which, in what is either a strange coincidence or a minor hiccup in the simulation we call life, was released the same day as A Glitch in the Matrix—Owen Wilson plays Greg, a sad-sack divorcée who’s having the worst day of his life. Greg is called into his boss’s office and promptly fired, and then he accidentally (and somewhat comically) kills his boss. After hiding the body, Greg goes to the bar across the street where he meets Isabel (Salma Hayek), an eccentric homeless woman who tells him they’re living in a virtual world and almost everybody around them is, in video game parlance, a non-player character—including Greg’s children.
It’s easier to buy Isabel’s story once she uses telekinetic powers to shape their reality; Greg is able to do the same after he takes these mysterious orange crystals. Soon, Greg and Isabel are using their powers to knock supposed NPCs over in roller skating rinks. The movie also features equally mysterious blue crystals, which, if enough are ingested, will thrust Isabel and Greg back into “reality.” The use of crystals, combined with the grimy and crime-ridden world the characters inhabit, will draw inevitable comparisons to The Matrix—especially since Greg has his own reawakening in a much more idyllic world. (This isn’t much of a spoiler, considering the trailer gives away the reveal.) But as Agent Smith explained to Morpheus in The Matrix, mankind wasn’t able to accept the machines’ vision of a utopian world, which is why the Matrix is filled with familiar imperfections. Bliss, then, will make you question how much of what Greg is experiencing is real. Skepticism is encouraged, particularly considering the blue crystals bear some resemblance to a, uh, real-life substance. What would a simulated reality with vivid detail and a lack of apparent consequences be if not highly addictive?
That brings to mind Zuckerberg’s real-life Oculus endgame: Billions of people buying into a breakthrough immersive technology to the point that it becomes a staple of everyday life. But you get the impression that VR would only be embraced so wholeheartedly if it would serve as an attractive alternative to the state of the world. And, as has been repeatedly expressed in VR movie canon, that’s a fraught proposition.
While Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One is mostly concerned with dropping a bunch of ’80s pop culture references in its nostalgia-obsessed text, Steven Spielberg’s 2018 film adaptation is more disturbing and self-aware than it probably gets credit for. Spielberg’s subversive approach to Cline’s source material is apparent from the film’s chilling opening sequence, where everyday people are hooked into the pop culture–centric fantasy of the Oasis—basically VR at the level of Zuckerberg’s wildest dreams—as a means of escaping a world crumbling under the weight of capitalism, poverty, and greed. (The use of Van Halen’s “Jump” is a nice touch.)
Cline’s book, along with its derivative sequel, is largely predicated on the surface-level proclamation that some dope stuff came out of the ’80s. But Spielberg seems more interested in the role pop culture plays in providing shallow escapist comforts. And considering Spielberg’s massive cultural footprint—from Jaws and Indiana Jones to Jurassic Park and E.T.—Ready Player One can be viewed as a filmmaker coming to terms with his own legacy within a glitzy blockbuster where the Iron Giant and a Gundam fight Mechagodzilla. (Obviously, the pop culture fan service of Ready Player One is still plentiful, and there’s a reason the film isn’t among Spielberg’s highly regarded works.)
Ready Player One ends as the Oasis is placed in the hands of “the people” rather than a greedy corporation trying to monetize the platform further, a cushy landing that closely mirrors its source text. Protagonist Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) and his friends decide to close the Oasis two days per week for its users to spend time outside of it—a bizarrely pitiful compromise in the context of a real world that’s in a state of decay. But Ready Player One’s climax is also, in a way that Cline doubtless never intended, a bleak inverse to the Matrix trilogy. Instead of actively trying to fix the real world, the Oasis proves to be too alluring to quit outright. There’s no point enduring the hardships of repairing society from the ground up when, like Cypher enjoying the simulated taste of a perfectly prepared steak entering his mouth, ignorance is bliss.
Which is not to say that all fictionalized concepts of VR carry such bleak undertones. While virtual reality isn’t the subject of every Black Mirror episode, it’s one of the anthology series’ favorite go-to storytelling devices. Anyone familiar with Black Mirror knows to brace for the worst, and the VR-centric episode “Playtest” absolutely fits the bill. But one of the show’s most celebrated installments, “San Junipero,” abandons that formula to spotlight a moving love story between two women (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mackenzie Davis) whose connection transcends death in a simulated reality where their avatars represent their younger selves. The hopeful tone of “San Junipero” is the exception to the Black Mirror rule of distrusting technology, especially in the hands of large corporations. But that’s exactly what makes the episode so great—and in its own way, ambitious.
Maybe it’s only natural that recent onscreen depictions of virtual reality have underlined its escapist appeal, and, as expressed by the real-life interview subjects of A Glitch in the Matrix, convinced people that they’re living in a simulation. (Who among us wouldn’t want to get whisked away to a world of pure imagination, especially in the midst of a pandemic?) But with a fourth Matrix movie arriving at the end of 2021, bringing us back to the franchise where a messiah-like figure freed mankind from its virtual prison, it feels like the virtual reality movie is coming full circle. Or perhaps we’re getting caught in the same nostalgic comforts that these stories have been warning us about in the first place.