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Versions is the essential guide to virtual reality and beyond. It investigates the rapidly deteriorating boundary between the real world and the one behind the screen. Versions launched in 2016 at the eponymous conference dedicated to creativity and VR with the New Museum’s incubator NEW INC.

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The colorful worlds of alternate cyberpunk

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The colorful worlds of alternate cyberpunk

There is something both corny and exciting about cyberpunk movies from the 90s and 00s. Put simply, some of these movies are colorful. Many of us know cyberpunk for its dark neo-noir aesthetics established in the 70s and 80s, but there are examples of cinema from these more recent decades that paint a vivid picture of the sci-fi subgenre without forgetting to warn us of the dangers of our technological future.

That said, not many of these colorful cyberpunk films manage to get close to predicting real near-future technology, and they are still full of stereotypes and familiar places—the punk-style hacker, overstimulating electronic billboards that talk to passers-by, crowded places and food tents amid the urban chaos. It’s still recognizably cyberpunk, but the dominant palettes embrace imaginations beyond those caught up in the dingy, rain-soaked back alleys and city blocks like circuitry, filled with old pipework and drug dens.

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Nirvana (1997), Gabriele Salvatores

Jimi (Christopher Lambert), a virtual reality game designer, discovers that Solo (Diego Abatantuono), the main character of his game “Nirvana,” has become sentient, and is asking to be erased. By teasing Jimi with the idea that both of them are actually caged in a cyclic life, cursed by a system of eternal return, Solo puts his creator in a battle against the company he works for, Okasama Star. With the help of the former hacker Joystick (Sergio Rubini), and later the technician Naima (Stefania Rocca), Jimi travels to the suburbs and underworlds of Marrakesh and Bombay City, which are miniatures of places influenced by the Arabic and Indian cultures, but reimagined according to the classic cyberpunk ethos of high tech and low life.

Though the most famous image of this movie is the depiction of Kali by Luisa Corna, the story is not as based on Buddhist and Hinduist precepts as it implies. By criticizing the cyclic routine of his constant rebirths in the game, Solo contradicts both the belief in reincarnation posited by these religions and the desire to live forever in the machine. His opposition to both draws a parallel between them, united by the concept of rebirth—one through spirituality, the other technology. In the film their fusion is played visually. The chaotic world of Nirvana puts its clashing cultures together in the same place. All the foreign influences, such as ethnic groups, cuisines, architecture and religious imagery, are united geographically as well as on the screen, but don’t necessarily cause feelings of estrangement or incompatibility.

luxurious labyrinthine spaces

What this lends itself to are scenes such as the one with a big picture of a Hindi deity behind nuns as they descend a staircase, and a colorful funeral bursting across the dark and steamy streets where people pray, smoke, play music, and try to rid themselves of organ hunters. The soundtrack additionally brings in ethnic references as it’s remixed with traditional industrial rock from the 90s—exemplifying the merge of the two strains of cyberpunk aesthetic the film presents.

When exploring the dream-like landscapes of virtual reality worlds, Nirvana’s visualization of VR hacking lands close to Johnny Mnemonic’s (1995) similar pursuit. But, on the other hand, it also envisions luxurious labyrinthine spaces not seen in cyberpunk before.

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The Cell (2000), Tarsem Singh

Back in 2000, director Tarsem Singh’s The Cell visualized a serial killer’s mind through magnificent landscapes and costume design. After getting caught by the FBI, Carl Stargher (Vincent D’Onofrio) is taken to a lab known for its therapeutic methodology based on a mind-to-mind connection similar to virtual reality. The child psychologist Catherine (Jennifer Lopez) is now responsible for diving into Stargher’s mind, where she finds herself trapped in frightening, gruesome mazes.

The premise is that if someone starts to believe the simulation is real, then the consequences are seen in real life too. After Catherine is unable to wake up, agent Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn) enters Stargher’s mind too. While he tries to find the clues that will lead his team to where the last victim is being kept, Catherine insists on trying to deal with Child Stargher, who she believes is the actual Carl (Ego) and not the fearsome devilish figure of his adult self, which is his alter-ego.

The worlds visited by both Catherine and Peter are designed according to a combination of what Stargher has lived as a child and how he sees the world as a disturbed adult. By presenting his traumatic childhood in small doses, the psychologist can understand why he became fascinated by the pale beauty of his bleached victims. While depicting one’s mind as a desert scattered with pieces of memory and identity, Singh ends up lending a lot of the subjects worked by the Surrealist movement, mostly with Salvador Dalí and Giorgio de Chirico. That means The Cell is not only a movie made of magnificent shots, but also a visual composition of the psyche, bringing all the references from the work of Freud and Jung too.

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Thomas est Amoureux (2001), Pierre-Paul Renders

Translated to English as Thomas in Love, the movie tells the story of Thomas Thomas (Benoît Verhaert), a 32-year-old guy who suffers from agoraphobia and hasn’t left his apartment for nearly nine years. For this reason, he can only connect with the outside world by using a device called a visiophone, which is a combination of a videocall machine and something resembling virtual reality.

Thomas uses the visiophone to connect with prospective partners—both for dating and for sex.  Despite the harassment love story that evolves out of this set-up, what makes Thomas est Amoureux intriguing is the depiction of a future where people still wear sari and wrapped garment, draw symbols on their faces as an identity ritual, and also decorate their houses in a reloaded version of the colorful interior designs of the 60s.

the outside world as if through the electric lens of the internet

The character of this world is presented through its smaller details. Take the corny and insistent advertising lady, who asks Thomas to do a psychoaffective test in order to join a dating service. It’s a bit too much of an ask, and helps to illustrate how ridiculous and nonsensical this society is. Other signs are the people dressed in bright colors, with tattoos and stickers all over their happy and (usually) tranquilized faces, as if they were the next step of the Soma-based society presented in Brave New World (1948). There are also houses full of light with an excess of accessories, matching the exuberant way these people dress. What is seen here is an effort to make the cinematic experience overwhelming by stuffing it with almost garish visual information.

The significance of this presentation of the world is that it’s a mimicry of how Thomas experiences it—through a glowing screen. The film’s visuals are an effort to portray the outside world as if through the electric lens of the internet. It’s a cinema experience that seems to want to match the proximity provided by first-person videogames. Thomas est Amoureux opts for a curious voyeuristic format that forces us to imagine its world based on the few, radiant details provided, just as its protagonist must, deprived as he is by the real and physical, choosing instead to live almost exclusively in virtuality.

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Hellevator, the bottled fools (2005),  Hiroki Yamaguchi

In terms of the technology seen in the film, Hellevator comes across as the offspring of Tetsuo, The Iron Man (1989) and Brazil (1984), though it is mostly a horror movie. This also means that the film is not exactly cyberpunk, but can be understood as a 21st century proto-cyberpunk work that presents a dystopic underground world of darkness, dirt, and surveillance.

It follows the schoolgirl Luchino (Luchino Fujisaki), who is caught smoking—a forbidden act in this reality—and then tries to run away from the police by hiding inside an elevator. This elevator connects all the subterranean floors, but separates them by function: one for convenience stores, another for dormitories, hospital, cemetery, and so forth. More than being an utilitarian approach to architecture, the building’s levels make literal the divisions of this society and the people who populate each strata.

Along with predominant tones such as vicious lime and indigo, the movie often uses camera tricks like the fish-eye lens to make the characters look even more surreal. This tangles with odd sights such as the many identical salarymen who talk in unison on their identical telephones and, more significantly, the arrival of two deadly criminals who are being taken to execution on the building’s designated level. Not only are they frightening figures for the crimes they committed (rape and cannibalism, for example), but also because their depiction is intended to cause fear and discomfort—the way the camera distorts their bodies, one too short and the other too tall, or how the bigger one speaks in reverse, silencing everything else as he talks.

After an explosion on a deeper floor causes the elevator to breakdown, the criminals are released from their handcuffs while everyone is stuck in the cubicle with them. At first, all the passengers appear as everyday people, but when the two criminals manage to kill the officer escorting them, each passenger is forced to release their inner beast. In the ensuing confusion of blood and rage, Hellevator doesn’t look like much more than a b-movie horror flick, however, Luchino is able to use telepathy to read the minds of the passengers and so she discovers the truth beneath their personas.

It’s here that the film explores the notion of what is ultimately real, as we get to know each person’s true persona, which they hide behind their ordinary physical appearance. The elevator becomes a microcosm of our society and current ideas on identity, exploring how our hidden selves (the Jungian shadow) are liberated by the immediate fear of death, such as that which arises in the film after the elevator breaks down and the passengers find themselves locked inside with two deadly criminals. It’s then that Hellevator asks us to question what is true and what is deceit—both in terms of the inner psyche and the world where these characters live Are we the people we perform as in our everyday lives or is that primal instinct a better idea of what we truly are? It’s through this that the film also leads into the typical cyberpunk debate over what is real and what is not,—one of the favorite unanswerable discussions that combines philosophy and virtual reality, and exemplified in 1999’s The Matrix.

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Sleep Dealer (2008), Alex Rivera

Sleep Dealer tells the story of Memo (Luis Fernando Peña), a man from a small village in Mexico who has a curiosity and an ambition that doesn’t fit in with his hometown anymore. By learning how to hack a device that connects him to radio frequencies, he ends up listening to a conversation he wasn’t supposed to. For this reason, he is tracked by the American government and a drone remote pilot is designed to destroy the target. As all these elimination missions are streamed live on a reality show, Memo and his brother discover that their house has been set for destruction, but they are not able to reach it in time to save their father who is killed inside.

Guilty enough to leave his house at last, Memo goes to a bigger city, Tijuana, where he gets his nodes and starts to earn money as a node worker after getting help from Luz (Leonor Varela), a woman he meets on the bus. Though Luz says she is a writer, she actually makes a living by selling her memories to an online trading company called TruNode. As someone is paying to watch her create memories with Memo, she starts to follow him throughout his journey, presenting new places in the city, such as a nightclub where people with nodes can get a cheap connection experience. Combining the aesthetics of a typical Mexican club where couples dance to local music, neon-lit cables fall from the ceiling while an overweight shirtless man sits in a corner, dancing in a trance provided by the connection.

While at first Memo finds some comfort in the suburbs of Tijuana, living in an abandoned house and talking to homeless old men, soon he discovers places like the central part of the city, a place that makes him feel comfortable and reconnected with his past and hometown. He finally understands that, in the end, he was never attached to any real places—when in Santa Ana Del Rio, he only thought about big cities, and when in Tijuana, he could only think about his family in the village. As a node worker too, he was working remotely in the US, like many other Mexican people were already doing by connecting to robots that provide services such as babysitting or construction work. As stated by his supervisor, this is the American dream: having them working, but not living, in the country.

Besides the criticism of immigration and issues faced by Mexican people, the movie portrays a futuristic Tijuana that runs close to Neill Blomkamp’s  portrayal of South Africa in District 9 (2009), for instance, but with added neon-bright details and  high-tech gadgets appearing amid the outdated objects and poverty. One year before Blomkamp though, Alex Rivera did it with a new version of the Promethean myth in Sleep Dealer, presenting intriguing ideas and questions such as memory commerce (as seen in 1995’s Strange Days), cybersex via node connection (later also featured in 2009’s Avatar) and the usage of remote control of drones in warfare.

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Bonus: The Zero Theorem (2013), Terry Gilliam 

Back in 2013, Terry Gilliam brought up a new Kafkaesque dystopia that takes us back to the mood of the universe he created for Brazil (1984), but with a bigger budget and more advanced technology to simulate virtual worlds and discussions therein.

The Zero Theorem tells the story of Qohen Leth (Christopher Waltz), a somewhat eccentric and neurotic programmer who works for Mancom and lives trapped in existential angst represented by a phone call he keeps waiting for. After his request to work from home is accepted by the Management, Qoohen then needs to solve the Zero Theorem—a complex mathematical formula—which leads to him spending months alone. During this time, he develops further mental deterioration as recognized by the Shrink-ROM, a psychoanalyst AI played by Tilda Swinton.

The virtual world is his solace

More than trying to understand what the Zero Theorem is, while watching the film it’s better to see how the relationship between Qohen and Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry) develops as they meet in virtual reality at a simulation of a beach—an event that  recalls the first scene of William Gibson’s Count Zero (1986). It’s here that Qohen finds a bit of peace away from the theorem that he can’t find a way to solve. The virtual world is his solace. In addition to that, the movie is full of other visual stimulation to chew on, especially in the rare moments when the protagonist actually leaves his home—an abandoned church he bought for himself.

There is a street full of annoying interactive advertisements that follow Qohen along the sidewalk. Signs also unite in a single place to enforce the many things you are not allowed to do in public (no eating, no listening to music, no cellphone, basically nothing). Stickers and graffiti decorate a city populated by people dressed as if they were stuck in a neverending 1980s costume party: from a version of Penelope Pitstop as a pizza delivery woman to general practioners that wear pastel yellow suits while examining a patient. Also, in The Zero Theorem, you will find a platinum blonde version of Matt Damon dressed in a zebra suit while playing the Management, aka Qohen’s boss—an identity marked by function rather than a name that seems fit for a leader that has evicted himself from the human race.

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Cyberpunk has found many, differing ways to approach its themes outside of the aging icon of a dark metropolis detailed in neon. These colorful examples from the 90s and 00s encourage us to see the subgenre differently. By following the dystopic idea of a society based on pursuing an ideal happiness, as proposed in Brave New World, these movies’ bright colors and overstimulating imagery put us in contact with what is likely an exaggerated version of our future, but one that seems closer to what we’re heading towards, compared to previous cyberpunk visions.

Considering that Blade Runner’s story happens in 2019, three years from now, it’s fair to say its fears and concerns of advanced androids missed the mark a little. Though Ridley Scott’s film has inspired many generations in scientific and artistic fields, we’ve learned to accept that this is not the way society is evolving. Perhaps our times are being better investigated by post-cyberpunk works, or more “realistic” fictions such as Mr. Robot (2015). There are also the most recents books by William Gibson or the latest generation of (post) cyberpunk writers, like Cory Doctorow, who have been portraying our current world through the lens of cyberpunk in an effort to update those seminal ideas born in the 70s and 80s.

Still, the visions of virtual reality shown through these movies from the 90s and 00s lead us to the idea that such technology will give us the freedom of creation, aligning reality with our dreams: everything could be rendered, you only need to think it. We may still be far away from having that kind of immediate power, if it ever happens, but the optimistic way virtual reality and transhumanism were seen during those two decades is something explored by Margaret Wertheim in the book The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace (2000). All of this should act as  positive inspiration for what the programmers, designers, and everyone else invested in virtual reality could considerwhen looking at our present and inventing our future.

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