Tom Jolliffe looks back at the wave of straight to video Virtual Reality films that followed in the wake of The Lawnmower Man in the mid to late ’90s…
The idea of virtual reality worlds has been something of a sci-fi staple for many decades. Cronenberg toyed with the concept in Videodrome. Philip K Dick’s classic short story, We Can Dream it For You Wholesale was adapted to the big screen as Total Recall. However, during the video game boom of the early 90s, alongside a progressive wave of developing CGI technology, VR became immensely popular, with everything from naff TV game shows, to movie concepts.
Brett Leonard’s The Lawnmower Man opened to some moderate success. It’s sort of terrible, but also simultaneously brilliant. One can’t help thinking Ben Stiller’s depiction of an actor playing a mentally challenged character had within it some reference to Jeff Fahey’s performance as Jobe in this film. Pierce Brosnan, for his sins here, was given James Bond a couple of years later.
The film among many highlights features VR sequences that haven’t aged particularly well (but sequences of the like, with PS1 level cut scene graphics were all the rage in films like this and Johnny Mnemonic back in the 90s) and lines delivered with complete sincerity from Brosnan like ‘That was the best chimp I ever had (after he sadly…well, loses a chimp).’ The film was based on a Stephen King novel, though King has disassociated himself entirely from the movie.
The VR film would find some refinement and improvement in better films like Strange Days, and of course be perfected in The Matrix (not least because the ‘virtual’ world would look indistinguishable from the real world, as opposed to being early era CGI sequences). Leonard in fact revisited the sub-genre with Virtuosity, which is a lot of fun (and more intentionally enjoyable for the most part).
From 1993 until the end of the decade there seemed to be a deluge of straight to video films riffing on the VR plotline. Some of those went as far as including CG sequences to depict the VR, others to a more low tech approach, but threw in some cheap production design to get the vibe. For one, we had a Hellraiser sequel, and in a franchise of almost entirely maligned sequels after the third, Hellraiser: Bloodline may well take the turd crown as the black sheep of Pinheads canon and toyed with some VR themes.
One exponent of the new VR fascination was Don ‘The Dragon’ Wilson. In 1995 he made Virtual Combat (a.k.a. Grid Runners, directed by B movie supremo, Andrew Stevens) which combined VR, cyber sex and of course fighting. It’s goofy, but it’s fun. Like the ream of similarly themed films of the era through the video market, the concept made it strangely compelling, particularly as for the most part, the VR backdrops looked exactly the same as the back street, cheap locations that the rest of the film had been shot in.
Wilson in fact, joined by Lorenzo Lamas and Cynthia Rothrock, revisited VR way after the wave had subsided, with Sci-Fighter in 2004. The production design in that went as far as redressing a Nintendo Game Cube as the VR fighting game machine that Don finds himself trapped within. It’s a whole decade later than Grid Runners, and looks about a quarter of the budget (and Grid Runners wasn’t exactly lavish).
Other contemporaries along the way joined the fun. Michael Dudikoff made Virtual Assassin, Joe Lara made Hologram Man, Lorenzo Lamas starred in a pretty enjoyable Cybertech P.D (with Chris Sarandon as villain) and Billy Blanks made Expect No Mercy (but lots of fighting). There seemed to be a new VR film appear with regularity, often with eye catching artwork to suggest we might have something more visually elaborate than what ends up appearing on screen (Brainscan was another which has always had alluring artwork and it’s also enjoyable).
In the B movie arena, one prolific exponent of sci-fi concepts was Albert Pyun. He was in his pomp in the 90’s, belting out films that often featured Cyborgs, and an array of other sci-fi plots. In that post Lawnmower Man period then, it was inevitable that Pyun would get in on the action. In atypically gonzo delivery, he plugged audiences into Arcade, which went fully into its concept (and whether you think it’s to the benefit or detriment, is up to you if you see it).
Utilising green screen heavily and incorporating same quaintly basic animated backdrops, it looked dated, if somehow unique back in 1993 (to myself as a UK viewer it made me think of kids TV gameshow Knightmare). Not without its charms, Arcade can also boast an early David S. Goyer script and Seth Green appearing, under the Full Moon flag (Charles Band’s company which all but guaranteed gonzo genre fare). All under Pyun’s eye, with his certain je ne sais quoi, it’s enjoyably goofy.
Whether many of these films were directly influenced by Lawnmower Man, or merely jumping into a passing wave, as many DTV companies of the day had a wont to do (and still do now) who knows, but the film did seem to kick-start a big surge of largely terrible films. Some enjoyably so, some better than you might expect, but certainly, there were swathes of these kind of films from 1993 to 1999. What is your favourite VR film? Let us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.