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The rise and demise of virtual reality

by Critical Commons Manager

It is remarkable how repetitive the tropes of virtual reality are when depicted in commercial cinema of the past three decades. And while the technologies driving VR have evolved, the promise of their actualization and the ways they interface with human bodies has remained relatively static, at least in the cinematic imaginary. The possibility of experiencing illicit, dangerous or forbidden actions give rise to repeated extremes of exoticism, adventure, violence and erotics, relentlessly portrayed through a first-person camera point of view. Another way of looking at it is that VR provides an excuse for Hollywood cinema to simultaneously indulge in the excesses of such visual pleasures, while distancing itself from the technology that is diegetically responsible for presenting such content to audiences.

A cursory survey of movies and TV shows since the early 1980s reveals the inscription and reinscription of standard tropes of VR - complex technological apparatuses that deliver "safe" (but never completely safe!) experiences that we may be denied in everyday life: particularly extremes of violence, sexual pleasure and other kinds of exoticism. The apotheosis of these depictions in American entertainment came in 1995, with the release of more than a half-dozen feature films and TV shows within the space of a few months. Among these, Strange Days, Virtuosity and VR5 all delivered a vision of virtual reality that was indistinguishable from real life -- that is complete sensory, emotional immersion in a world that was entirely generated by a computer. In 1995, if TV and movies were to be believed, the coming generation of VR technology was poised to deliver consumer-level virtual reality that was indistinguishable from the real world. Ellen Strain has termed this phenomenon of the cinematic imaginary "virtual virtual reality," noting that the Hollywood fantasies of VR led to impossibly high expectations in comparison with actually existing virtual reality technologies in the 1990s. So by the time Nintendo released the Virtual Boy in 1995, consumers who paid nearly $200 for the 3D gaming system experienced not sensory immersion but a 2-bit monochromatic LED display with images about the size of a YouTube video.

Nintendo went on to release a limited number of cartridges based on existing Game Boy titles such as Mario Tennis, Bowling, Golf, Baseball, Pinball, Boxing and Tetris. But the primary sensory response from players was a combination of nausea and headaches and The Virtual Boy was discontinued the following year. A year earlier, Sega also discontinued development of its own visor-based VR system, issuing a tongue-in-cheek public explanation that the virtual reality experience had been so realistic that test subjects were injuring themselves by attempting to walk into virtual spaces while wearing the visor. Put bluntly, we can consider the rampant commercial depictions of VR in 1995 as an instance of the movie industry launching a highly effective attack against the gaming industry, successfully raising consumer expectations to the level of big-budget Hollywood feature films.

Subsequent years saw the rapid decline of commercial viability for Virtual Reality in the decade after 1995; development funds that had been channeled to VR labs at Atari and NASA Ames were eclipsed by the frenzy of speculative investment in the Internet, leading to the dotcom bubble and subsequent collapse just five years later. To overstate the case only slightly, "virtual virtual reality" on TV and in movies *killed* real virtual reality as a medium for commercial entertainment in the mid 1990s.

Race and Gender

by John Paul Henderson

The discussion of race and gender brought about from this movie is a very different discussion than we would

have today.  At the time this film was made, 1995, there was no thought of a black president and the gangster rap of, 

Tu Pac and Biggie, was what played through out.  I do not believe that the context of that time exist today.

Race relations were a source of hight tension because of different incidents and high profile black Americans.

When discussing this clip I will be committing on the time this movie was released and not present day.


It is interesting that all the heroes of the film are completely counter culture.  Jerico, the fictional character and leader 

of a revolution is black and trying to build an army against the system. LAPD.  The films hero could be considered 

the black female who saves our lead character.  I do believe this film is trying to make a statement that both minorities

and under represented groups can become more predominate and powerful.  Many things of the time were about 

different groups expressing themselves and gaining ground.  It was very interesting that in "Strange Days" the white 

people were the main offenders of the "playback" epidemic.  According to studies done in 1995 the use of drugs 

among whites and black was equal, even though blacks were arrested more often for drug use. I can see this 

movie really trying hard to be counter-culture by going against the norms and portraying the future as almost an 

opposite of what the present day was.  Since then we have grown in many ways and have expanded in many 

cultural relations.  We have a black president, and a woman was very close to be elected vice president of the 

United States.  It is interesting how far we have come in such a short time.  Just fifteen years ago we could only 

portray in fantasy a black leader and a woman hero.   

Whose POV Is It Anyway?

by Omer Levin Menekse

In Gaming`s second chapter Galloway talks about POV shots in cinema and then introduces subjective shots. He defines the POV shot as fundamentally flawed when it comes to audience-character identification because: ` Real human vision does not come in a tidy, rectangular aspect ratio. ` And thus, the subjective shot is introduced; the camera which loses focus in a fight and bleeds when it's struck. A more realistic mode of seeing, a technique which does put us into the said character's shoes. 

In this sequence in Strange Days we, as the audience, follow a prostitute named Iris as she rides along with Jericho One. The audience at this point is in possession of two facts: A) Jericho One is murdered, and in this clip the mystery will be solved. and B) That the person from whose subjective vision we are watching this event from, Iris, will be brutally raped and murdered in a way that is especially horrific and brutal, even as far as rape and murder goes.

Ultimately this is a scene in which our own subjective vision and intrinsic desire for a solution to the central mystery of the plot - Who killed Jericho One? -, tramples the subjective vision of Iris, for whom Jericho One is just a guy she is supposed to sleep with and dig information on. But during our experience of watching the playback tape, we simply don't care about her, even though this is her subjective vision. Jericho One is more important to us because A) He is more central to the plot and B) He is the film's equivalent of Rodney King and the event itself underlines one of the thematic considerations of Strange Days. ( Yes, I realize that the real Rodney King incident in the movie is what happens to Mace, but at this point of the movie, ` LAPD kills an African American ` sets up red flags on our minds, doesn't it? Maybe it's more of a Malcolm-X or Martin Luther King type of situation, but still, ultimately, we are invested in this event because it's relevant to us. ) 

And what of Iris? The lowly prostitute who has maybe a total of ten lines in the movie and who is then discarded in the most brutal way possible? Do we, as the audience, care about her when she runs from the cops at the end of the scene, knowing that her run is futile, and, perhaps, that it would have been much better for her if she just got shot and died there? We don't, - at least I personally didn't until I watched this clip for a second time - because she is not a part of this story. Once she sees Jericho One get shot and runs away, she is no longer a component of our subjective gaze. She is like a camera, and we never get to wear her shoes. She is what she shows us, and then she is useless. She is discarded both by the movie and by us.

In Strange Days, most subjective shots succeed in putting us into the character's shoes. Nero's reminiscing of his ex-girlfriend Faith is a moment that is used to bring sympathy to Nero, who is until then just a smarmy scumbag pornographer. In those moments, we are with Nero and we understand why he cant simply let go of Faith. This is subjective POV shot supreme, and we are there all the way with Nero. However, Iris is not so lucky, she is unfortunately not a main character in this story. Even her death is shot from a subjective gaze that is opposite to hers. And her mode of dying is so grotesque and horrifying, she ultimately becomes ` the person who dies ` that way ` `. The act over-trumps her worth as a human being. 

To conclude, the subjective shot in the Jericho One sequence is an anomaly, because as opposed to putting us into the character's shoes, it turns the character into a camera and makes her even more worthless. This is because of the fact that as an audience, we would much rather care about Jericho One and the story. Thus, it is important to note, that while subjective shots can put the audience in a character's shoes, the audience also has it's own subjective vision, it's own desires, own demands. And unfortunately, most of the time, those do not coincide with the plight of a prostitute. Maybe, just as Galloway calls the POV shots, we too, are fundamentally flawed. 

Recreating History or a Parody of History?

by hsun

This clip from "Strange Days" is yet another great example of how history/social crisis/racial issue is represented in the form of games. It is interesting how in this clip, this representation appears to be paradoxical in nature: One the one hand, when the female character entered the game (beginning 0:51), it seems to be a scene-by-scene reenactment of a historic event (though ironically, this event, with its seemingly overbearing and immediate significance in historical, racial and human rights issues is also fictional--as a re-adaptation, or remediation of Rodney King), with the added aspect of individual participation in or interaction with the narrative (like the experience was promised by many high simulation video games); while on the other hand, if we focus on the fact that despite the detailed, highly simulated texture/ of the game, we can see that it is really not that different in concept from "Crosser" and "La Migra" in Julian Bleecker's "Getting the Reality You Deserve": "They present a concrete effort to deploy video games as vehicles and venues for cultural commentary andcriticism. The a game. The game is one of chance, where the stakes are survival." This then would naturally lead to the question Bleecker asked in his essay: how could "urban decline" been represented in video games? Or the even bigger question hanging over our head: how could history/reality be represented in video games? Is there a possibility of accurately recreating an re-experience of history through the medium of video games?

Minorities and Stereotypes

by Nelson

Strange Days was an entertaining film made in 1995 that included this scene in particular where two white cops killed a black rapper named Jeriko One.  I, being of an ethnicity that is neither white nor black, found that the film did not represent other minorities adequately.  As I sat there and watched the film, I thought to myself, I guess that in this future society, there aren’t any Latinos, Asians, Indians or Middle Easterners.  Did all these races all of a sudden disappear in this society?  Strange Days was made a few years after the Rodney King beating therefore I believe it was probably purposely made this way to really make this a race issue between whites and blacks.  A simple change I would have made in the film would have been to at lease sprinkle in more minorities as background extras.  Especially since this film takes place in Los Angeles, one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world.

This scene in Strange Days also shows a very outspoken black person taunting the police which can be easily interpreted as perpetuating stereotypes.  It’s the classic rap star rebel that doesn’t have respect for authority figures.  Granted, I know this was a plot point in the movie, but I would have made a minor change in this scene and gone either one of two ways.  ONE: I would have showed Jeriko One drinking alcohol in the jeep.  That way you could blame his behavior on the alcohol and not on his character being a jerk.  TWO: An alternative would have been to have Jeriko One be a calm and abiding citizen which would have made the shooting much more unjustified and dramatic.


Reliving a Historic Event Through Games

by Kristina Thomas

The past two weeks we talked about having the chance to relive historic events in American history, through game created to change the outcome, or make the event for graphic and realistic.  Nonetheless, in "Strange Days" we get a chance to relive that experience.

In the film, Lornette gets a chance to see Jericko executed by a cop.  Lenny Nero, an ex-cop who now deals with data-discs containing recorded memories and emotions.  The scene is similar to the Rodney King event that left a mark on American history.  In this scene we get to have somewhat of a first hand experience, of what it would be like to be there at the execution.  The system that they use is somewhat of a memory stick, storing essential memories of what you push record to.  In this case, the girl who sees everything, lets us see everything.  of the mind stored in the hard drive of the system.
JFK game that we saw in class, addressed the issue of realistic view point of reliving a murder.  We experience the murder from the killer's window, and even in the car.  But in some of the game's uploaded were playing a game of who ca kill JFK the exact same way as the killer.  It then turned into, who can kill everybody around JFK's car and then JFK.  To some, it's hysterically funny, or horrifically inhumane.   We as gamers, are given the chance to change history with the move of a joystick, or up/down key on our keyboard.  As players, we make the decision of not taking the game seriously, and seeing it as a game, but should we treat it as that.  Morals of what is right and wrong come into play, and we are challenged by how games influence us.  In "Strange Days" we are questioned as players of the film to understand if viewing someone's private memories is substantially morally wrong or right.  In the few, many of the memories we see are for personal, sexual usage.  Yet when we come upon a young groupie's view of the murder of Jericko, we are spiraled into what we really feel about what we see.
Games are a lot of times influenced by wanting to feel like you are in the game.  The feel, the touch, the morality of being a player is what makes a game fun and exciting.  To what lengths we take the game, is our own decision.  The levels we have to play to get to the next level that unveils a secret cave or mystery, it all keeps us playing.  This scene is no different.  We want to see who killed Jericko, we want to keep playing, well watching to see if this is really real.

Strange Days LAPD execution

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George Holliday's video recording of the Rodney King beating is remediated in this first-person POV execution scene from Strange Days

from Strange Days (1995)
Creator: Kathryn Bigelow
Posted by Critical Commons Manager