Being There: Virtual Reality in the Cinema

By Jim McClellan

It’s perhaps something of a truism that the auteur theory has been totally co-opted by Hollywood and is now little more than a useful marketing device. You only need to consider the spate of ‘director’s cuts’ recently issued on video, in many cases more re-mixes than recovered masterpieces and transparent attempts to make yet more money off the same piece of product. Perhaps the most ludicrous recent example of the phenomenon is the director’s cut of The Lawnmower Man. A routinely incoherent piece of special FXploitation, it is the tale of Job, a simple-minded gardener turned into a digital demi-god thanks to virtual reality (VR) therapy and heavy doses of smart drugs administered by mad(ish) scientist Dr. Angelo. At around two hours, it long overstayed its welcome. Now, there’s an extra 50 minutes to cope with.

Perhaps in response to the fact that the film now runs to epic length, the additions are, for the most part, wordily po-faced meditations by Dr. Angelo on the sociocultural implications of virtual reality. Though this is what you might expect from a film that billed itself as ‘the world’s first virtual reality film’, it actually constitutes an amusing about-face. When the film was being made, despite a tidal wave of media slavering on the subject, the producers felt that virtual reality still wasn’t well enough known to sell to the average cinema-goer in Boise, Idaho. Things have changed. VR now crops up frequently in Hollywood productions as a familiar gimmick; three examples – the virtual sex gizmo in Sly Stallone’s Demolition Man; the ‘woozyvision’ ride developed by Robin Williams’ madcap inventor in Toys and as a talking point (and apocalyptic signifier) in Robert Altman’s LA meltdown movie Short Cuts.

However, in search of some above the line-pulling power, The Lawnmower Man’s producers hijacked an old Stephen King story. The advertising posters for the film thus read ‘Stephen King’s The Lawnmower Man’, until King went to court to have his name removed. He wasn’t the only one who was unhappy. Virtual reality acolytes complained that the use of a King story brought nothing but incoherence to the treatment of VR. Certainly, there’s an obvious mismatch between the standard Frankenstein/Faust plot the film uses to explore techno-paranoia and the narrative structure that comes from Stephen King. The former casts Dr. Angelo as the archetypal scientist in pursuit of dangerous knowledge, transgressing the limits of the human, and Job as the sacrificial monster he creates, alternately sympathetic and horrific. The latter is the usual tale of the suburban uncanny and the return of the repressed, in which an outsider (Job) uses psychic powers (liberated by VR therapy) to take revenge on those who previously tormented him. It’s shot through with King’s familiar thematic baggage – bad fathers, dysfunctional families, religious perversion, telekinesis, the reappearance of archaic demons behind the white picket fence and so on.

Despite the complaints of trivialisation from VR groupies, the original film was actually quite comprehensive when it came to logging the diverse fantasies inspired by the new technology. It was all in there somewhere – VR as head trip or mind control, the ultimate orgasm or juvenile anti-body mental masturbation, post-acid psychedelic blast or weapon’s targeting system, emancipatory tool for the romantic imagination or new toy for the sons of Control and the military-industrial complex, purveyor of superficial but intense video game thrills or vehicle for techno-evolution, fast-forward vision of the future or primal screen for the return of primitive ecstasies and shamanic powers long since forgotten by the rationalist West.

‘The guiding myth, then, inspiring the invention of cinema, is the accomplishment of that which dominated in a more or less vague fashion, all the technologies of the mechanical reproduction of reality in the nineteenth century, from photography to the phonograph, namely an integral realism, a recreation of the world in its own image, an image unburdened by the freedom of interpretation of the artist or the irreversibility of time.’ – André Bazin, What is Cinema?

Perhaps the real problem was that, by putting it all up there at once, the film revealed the weakness of the way VR has been conceptualised by media and acolytes alike (basically as digital sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll) and revealed that much VR theory is, in the words of Scott Bukatman (author of Terminal Identity, an analysis of the treatment of ‘virtual subjectivity’ in postmodern science fiction and film) little more than ‘cyberdrool’.

Nevertheless, almost in spite of itself, The Lawnmower Man did suggest something interesting about VR and current cinema, though not through the narrative but through the formal pull of its FX sequences. Admittedly a lot of the more celebrated sequences were dreary and hackneyed (e.g. the virtual sex scene or other meta-morphic exercises in computerised psychedelia-cyberdelia) and often rather silly (the closing attempts to depict the space inside a computer). Some effects did work, though. There was the attempt to simulate a fast-forward plunge into VR, a kinaesthetic blur which blitzed the viewer with flash edits and vertiginous fractal zooms, dragging them forcibly into the space off the screen. More generally, there was the spiralling but precise camera swoops, something that could only be achieved by a computer simulation of a camera as opposed to the real thing.

The interesting thing about the former effect is that it’s not particularly novel. It’s The Lawnmower Man’s version of a familiar cinematic buzz, an imagistic assault which literally moves you, the kind of thing big-budget Hollywood action movies – Lethal Weapon 3, T2, Point Break – seem to do best these days. The desire to enter the screen (a crucial part of the VR fantasy) was not just formally tickled but addressed directly (if rather clumsily) through the narrative of the last Arnie blockbuster The Last Action Hero.

‘The fanatics, the madmen, the disinterested pioneers, capable as was Bernard Palissy, of burning their furniture for a few seconds of shaky images, are neither industrialists or savants, just men obsessed by their own imaginings. The cinema was born from the converging of these various obsessions, that is to say, out of a myth, the myth of total cinema.’ – André Bazin, What is Cinema?

Of course, while modern blockbusters do encourage a kind of kinetic immersion in the image, they fail to involve people the way films used to in the past. Their plots don’t make sense; their characters are never coherent enough to be credible. Many critics have looked at this kind of thing and theorised that the last couple of decades have seen the waning of classical 20th-century model of the cinema (which relied on character, narrative, identification, p-o-v, etc.).

One representative example is provided by Timothy Corrigan, who, in A Cinema Without Walls, argues that modern blockbusters are incoherent at the level of narrative because they’re trying to appeal to as many different audiences as possible. As a result they’re not shared rituals in the way classic Hollywood films were. They don’t embody collective fantasies anymore. They don’t bind a public together. The aim is to dress up kinetic FX (which are ‘involving’ only in the most superficial, literal way) in such a manner as to get as many different audience sub-groups out of the house and into ticket queues.

Some have tried to offer a date at which ‘classic mass-market cinema’ began to crumble. Film theorist Dave Paul suggests the disaster movie cycle of the 70s (when old Hollywood was undergoing a real cultural and economic crisis), and the introduction of Sensurround sound for the Charlton Heston film Earthquake. The idea was not to move the audience, just shake them up a little bit, courtesy of the booming sound system.

‘All these visions and revisions of modernity were active orientations toward history, attempts to connect the turbulent present with a past and future, to help men and women all over the world make themselves at home in this world. These initiatives all failed, but they sprang from a largeness of vision and imagination, and from an ardent desire to seize the day. It was the absence of these generous visions and initiatives that made the 1970s such a bleak decade. Virtually no one today seems to want to make the large human connections that the idea of modernity entails. Hence discourse and controversy over the meaning of modernity, have virtually ceased to exist today.’ – Marshall Berman: All that is Solid Melts Into Air (1982)

Of course, the earth moving for Charlton Heston was just the beginning. Now we have the 180/360° spectacle offered by Imax and Omnimax. At Disneyworld, huge wraparound screens depict plunging images of flight which leave viewers steadying themselves with specially supplied handrails. In George Lucas’ ‘Star Tours’ show, cinema seats buck up and down in time with the action on the screen. In the ‘Horizons’ exhibit a four-person vehicle travels across a huge Imax screen, tilting in response to the swirling images and impossible perspective on screen, the better to provoke an intense kinaesthesia. The vertiginous, disorienting pleasures of a ride like ‘The World Of Motion’ are produced by a rush of images (seated in cars, the viewers never move) similar to the sequence used in The Lawnmower Man to suggest the plunge into virtual reality. Film and theme-park ride have become part of the same continuum of images. It’s become routine to hear action films these days described in terms of a speedy roller-coaster ride, even, indeed, to see films transformed directly into rides.

Overcome by the enveloping images he encountered at ‘The Geode’, a 360° Omnimax cinema at the Cité des Sciences at La Villette, the French theorist Paul Virilio was moved to announce the ‘dawn of a “non-Euclidean” cinema’ (watching Graeme Ferguson’s The Dream Is Alive, a 40-minute film about the voyage of the space shuttle, he experienced ‘an inverse vertigo before a chasm of images’), one in which ‘we can no longer separate screen from auditorium’, one which delivers a short, but intense ‘spatio-temporal hallucination’. All this meant, he suggested, that reflective distance from the screen was a thing of the past and that spectators should rather be thought of as passengers. ‘A theatre of impressive cinematic energy, the Geode is not exactly a cinema’, he concluded, ‘more a boarding and landing strip – a cineport for a trip minus the travelling, a journey on the spot: a time capsule like those of the comic strip heroes of our childhood’. What is virtual reality but a ‘cineport for a trip minus the travelling’?

Setting the Geode in its historical context, Virilio pointed out that ‘the fusion/confusion of camera, projection system and auditorium in the Imax/Omnimax process is part of a long tradition of “mobile framing” in cinema, dating from the invention of the tracking shot in 1898 by Eugene Promio, the Lumière Brothers’ cameraman, and extending to the most up-to-date of dollies.’ An early instance of the kind of thing Virilio refers to was provided by the exhibits produced at the turn of the century at Hale’s Tours’ funfair, where a camera was mounted on the front of a locomotive. The resulting films provoked a powerful sense of kinesis in audiences at the time.

The above examples suggest that, with the disappearance of the classic model, cinema has reverted back to its origins, as kinetic simulation and carnival sideshow. But perhaps this shouldn’t be seen as regressive. Perhaps these dispersed cinematic spectacles, from incoherent action blockbusters to ‘image rides’, are instances of an outmoded technology being ‘jacked up’, mutating perhaps, to anticipate new technological experiences. Then again, perhaps it’s not a question of anticipating, but of recovering a dream that was part of cinema right from the start.

The crucial part of the VR fantasy as articulated by the media is the dream of being able to interact with simulated realities that seem as ‘real’ as the real world. Scott Bukatman refers this back to André Bazin’s meditations on the ‘myth of total cinema’. Bazin observed that early cinema was also dominated by a desire for ‘a total and complete representation of reality… [for] the reconstruction of a perfect illusion of the outside world in sound, colour and relief’. What it worked with – black-and-white film, flat screens – could never deliver this dream. From this perspective, according to Bazin, ‘cinema has yet to be invented’.

From this perspective (VR as the end point of cinema), film narrative technique looks like an outmoded technology – useful in its day for drawing people in, but now in the way of the real business. You can see evidence of this in The Lawnmower Man and Walt Disney’s Tron, about a hacker sucked into a vast malevolent computer, and one of the earliest attempts by the film world to depict virtual space. In both, a silly, incoherent, over-determined narrative gets in the way of the real (if rather limited) drama of the kinetic, computer-animated FX sequences. As far as VR is concerned, narrative is perhaps only needed to kick-start a viewer’s involvement in exploration of a virtual world. As with video games like Super Mario Bros, the narrative will function as an opening onto the world, an enabling device which then sets the user/viewer free to go where they wish (within limits).

Even if the kind of film narrative they market is on the way out, with cinema (as VR) ‘yet to be invented’, there’s still plenty for Hollywood to do. Speaking last year at a symposium on virtual reality at the Guggenheim in New York, the techno-theorist Manuel De Landa (author of War In The Age Of Intelligent Machines) reminded everyone that VR was developed by the American military, going on to point out that whilst US government cutbacks have led to the fragmentation of the old-style military-industrial complex, new formations were moving into place to develop new virtual technologies. Links were developing between Hollywood, the video game business and the military, all of whom had shared interests in the development of VR. Indeed, the virtual arcades that have appeared in the US and elsewhere in the last two years use old military technology previously used for digital target practice. What really links the military and Hollywood, De Landa suggested, is the quest for realism, for perfect simulation of reality. Hollywood wants it because they think it’s what the paying public wants; the military, because they want to be able to practise on perfectly precise simulations of battlefields before they go into action.

This kind of thing has made the hippie liberals who previously saw VR as an empowering technology think again. At the Guggenheim symposium, it became clear that, ranged against those interested in VR as perfect simulation (Hollywood, the military), were those who thought virtual technology was primarily about communication (hacker activists, techno-liberals). For the latter, cyberspace and the Internet (the computer network of networks which spans the globe and can be accessed via a computer hooked up to a modem) are more important than virtual reality. It’s easy to idealise on-line culture, but the interchanges on the Usenet Newsgroups on the Internet (bulletin boards on which people around the world engage in lively discussion on a variety of topics they choose) or the text-based role-playing games called MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons), in which large groups of users create their own identities and spin out huge on-going narratives, do seem to represent the development of a new kind of collective public space, of a new kind of community.

De Landa argued that certain technologies have the military, or an idea of the military, built into them, for example VR. However, the Internet seems definitely anti-militaristic. It’s diffuse, decentralised, non-hierarchical. There is no one central point from which you can watch or control what’s going on there. Indeed there have been rumours that, precisely because of this, the American military is looking for a way to control and regulate the Net. Whether that’s true or not, it’s certainly the case that people who use the Net become incredibly caught up in it, spending hours up there. It’s an amusing irony. Even as Hollywood develops ever more realistic high-tech simulations, which, though they literally draw people into the screen, end up leaving them cold, the truly involving virtual realities currently being created on the hoof in cyberspace via the Internet rely on a primitive, supposedly outmoded representational technology – the written word.

Jim McClellan is a freelance writer and contributing editor to The Face and i-D.