After months of anticipation fueled by online (and offline) buzz, enigmatic trailers filled with arresting images, but little substantive information, Christopher Nolan's "existential heist film," Inception, the follow-up to Nolan's last crowd-pleasing blockbuster, The Dark Knight, arrives in movie theaters. Not everyone, however, will want to brave opening weekend crowds. A weekday/week-night screening or a screening next weekend might seem more attractive. If that's you and you still want to get a virtual reality fix before or after you check out Inception, but definitely not while you're checking it out, then this Cinematical Seven was made for you.
For this Cinematical Seven edition, we'll save the (non)-surprises for last (or is it first?). As usual, a spoiler alert is in full effect.
7. Dreamscape (1984): Recently revisiting Dreamscape confirmed what I already knew (but didn't want to admit to myself): Nostalgia can only take you so far. Dreamscape has plenty of ideas, from shared lucid dreaming, dream assassins, to government conspiracies. The cast includes Dennis Quaid, Kate Capshaw, Christopher Plummer, Max Von Sydow, and David Patrick Kelly (best know for his turn as the villain in The Warriors five years earlier). Strong ideas and an equally strong cast, however, aren't enough to overcome inferior production values, sub-par visual effects (even for 1984), and a wasted storyline and non-compelling characters. On the plus side, Dreamscape seems to have had an influence on the virtual reality sub-genre, including Inception.
6. The Thirteenth Floor (1999): Critics weren't kind to this pulpy, stylish science-fiction/thriller that also failed to draw in audiences on its release eleven years ago, but as late-night cable fodder, you could do far, far worse. The Thirteenth Floor drew its inspiration from a 1964 novel, Simulacron-3, written by Daniel F. Galouye, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 1973 German mini-series, Welt am Draht (World on Wires). A somnambulant Craig Bierko, or rather his character in The Thirteenth Floor, investigates a murder related to a virtual world, discovering answers to questions he never wanted answered. A one-twist-too-many ending does little to undermine The Thirteenth Floor's guilty pleasures, including Gretchen Moll as the obligatory romantic interest and a typically over-the-top Vincent D'Onofrio as the antagonist to Bierko's virtual reality character.
5. ExistenZ (1999): Ripe for reappraisal, David Cronenberg (History of Violence) wrote and directed this mind-bending science fiction/mystery/thriller. Exploring the ramifications of video gaming culture in his inimitable style, Cronenberg posits an oddball, near-future where video gamers link up via organic, sexualized "game pods." Over the course of Existenz's running time, the line between objective reality and the gaming world blurs irrevocably for the central characters, a videogame designer played by Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jude Law's low-level, marketing employee, stranded in a virtual labyrinth with no way out, except to play on (and on and on).
4. Vanilla Sky (2001): In your first day of Philosophy 101, your professor might ask you: "How do you know you're not dreaming?" "How do you know you're not a brain in a vat?" "How do you know you're not a head in a box?" Vanilla Sky, Cameron Crowe's remake of Alejandro Amenábar's (The Others) science fiction-thriller, Abre los ojos (Open Your Eyes), takes its physically and emotionally scarred protagonist, played by Tom Cruise, through a personal journey that gives him answers he doesn't want to receive. Before Cruise's character gets to the predictable twist ending (sing along now, "Head in a box, head in a box, he's nothing but a head in a box..."), however, he mixes it up romantically with Penélope Cruz (reprising her role from Abre los ojos) and Cameron Diaz (channeling Glenn Close's Fatal Attraction character).
3. Tron (1982): Science fiction and gaming geeks loved Steven Lisberger's feature-length debut, Tron, for the promise, only partly delivered by crude computer animation, of virtual gaming worlds. Mainstream audiences, however, weren't as impressed with thinly developed characters, lackluster pacing, and, for some, an inaccessible storyline. Ironically, the video game tie-in brought in gamers eager to enter the Tron universe, if only one quarter or token at a time. It took almost three decades, but Tron fans will be rewarded for their seemingly limitless patience with the release of the sequel, Tron Legacy, in December.
2. Dark City (1999): Roger Ebert championed Alex Proyas' (The Crow) science fiction/noir mash-up offered a compelling murder mystery/conspiracy plot (well, at least until the halfway mark), 40s-inspired production design and cinematography, and compellingly watchable performances by Rufus Sewell, William Hurt (who exits Dark City far too soon), and a never-more-beautiful Jennifer Connelly as the not-quite-femme fatale. What it didn't have, crowd-pleasing set pieces (like our next, first entry, The Matrix) probably hurt its box-office chances, but not its afterlife on DVD and cable.
1. The Matrix (1999): Since its release more than a decade ago, Intro Philosophy professors have used The Matrix to discuss basic questions in the field (e.g., How do we know we're not dreaming?), but for moviegoers eleven years ago, they were fascinated, engrossed, and entertained by The Matrix's groundbreaking visual effects (that bullet time thing) and Asian-influenced martial arts sequences. Those martial arts scenes more than made up, however, for the by overlong, repetitive exposition scenes ("Yeah, Morpheus, we get it, real world, virtual world, etc."), sadly a sign of things to come for the misguided, disappointing sequels, Matrix: Reloaded and Matrix: Revolutions.
What do you think? Would you add, delete, change the order of the entries in this Cinematical Seven?