Insurgently virtual: Cosmic uncanny cinema from phantasmagoria to Jeanine’s sims

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VR stood for Virtual Reality long before a local YA novelist with those initials came along. Veronica Roth, as it turns out, puts a lot of VR scenes in her “Divergent” trilogy. Fans of her novels and their film adaptations may not realize that VR has a curious and uncanny past.

Immersive illusions diverted our ancestors long before Roth sold over 30 million books and the first “Divergent” film grossed almost $300 million. Novelists and screenwriters create entertainment that sensationalizes VR as suspect. Yet therapists deploy it to heal.

The simulations, serums and software of “Divergent” — Roth’s 2011 novel adapted for the 2014 film — play an even bigger role in the screen version of “Insurgent,” the sequel she published in 2012. The trilogy ends with “Allegiant,” her 2013 installment that will be adapted into two upcoming films. (Note to readers of credits: What starts out titled “Insurgent” turns into ”The Divergent Series: Insurgent” in the end credits. Apologies to the vice president of franchise titling at Lionsgate, but I will use the shorter title here.)

Roth set her story in Chicago long after a really big, really bad war. It was 100 years ago in the film “Divergent” and 200 in “Insurgent.” No one has fixed up the highrises dinged and scarred by collateral damage since then. “Transformer” rampages did worse. Superlative CGI sequences will obliterate more of the Loop in “Insurgent,” but landmark preservationists ought not despair. All these digitally spectacular demolitions are limited to virtual reality scenarios in the head of heroine Tris (Shailene Woodley).

Whatever the infrastructure once suffered, the city must have fast-tracked the surviving computer engineers and neurochemists to upgrade virtual reality technology far beyond today’s devices and digital environments. Sixteen-year-olds undergo hyper-realistic hallucinations at the hands of adults, as we learned in “Divergent.” Far more terrifying than ACT and SAT tests from pre-apocalypse Chicagoland, “fear landscapes” in these simulations (aka “sims”) test the aptitude and personality of teens.

Everyone is profiled in one of five factions, the futurist counterpart of today’s 50 wards. Post-war “founders” created the “faction system” — a civic division of labor with a dress code — to ensure “social order.” After choosing a faction for life at an annual rite, each teen must pass initiation sims. The exception: the kids who test positive in more than one faction — Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless or Erudite — and are ostracized as Divergent. Authorities deem them threats to the status quo, far worse than independent aldermen on the City Council in late 20th century Chicago.

Tris is a Divergent, unfit for any faction since her personality has extra facets. She also has an anomalous aptitude for knowing when she is inside a sim, and can alter its contours and outcomes. Kind of like Neo (Keanu Reeves) in the Wachowskis’ “The Matrix,” another trilogy with Chicago roots and a VR mise-en-scene.

Invariably, virtual reality films deliver meta-twists to mess with our minds. There are games within games within games in”eXistenZ” (1999). Simulations within simulations within simulations in “The Thirteenth Floor” (1999). Dreams within dreams within dreams drive the techno-thriller “Inception” (2010). In the last seconds of all three films, there is a tease that yet one more level of reality is in play.

“Insurgent” belongs to this sub-genre. Spoiler alert: The revelation in the last reel is less radical than Tris discovering her city is really one big digital sim. But it is momentous. Think tests. As in “The Maze Runner” (2014), “The Signal” (2014) and “Dark City” (1998).

It explains why a tall wall surrounds the city. One detail in Roth’s first novel is omitted in the two films. On a field trip to the wall Tris puzzles over one detail in the gate: “The lock is on the outside.” All these years, citizens of Chicago feared whatever was out there.

Tris’s isolation recalls “The Truman Show” (1998). Since childhood Truman (Jim Carrey) so feared the ocean, he never dared venture from Seahaven Island. His phobia stems from witnessing a traumatic incident staged by producers of a 24-hour live television show centered on the oblivious Truman, who is surrounded by TV actors and covert TV cameras. His own show is not aired in his fake town, so he has no idea the whole world is watching his fake life.

Maybe Tris gets out of Chicago in Roth’s third novel. Does it matter that in the first two films there are no radios, TV sets or movie theaters? Roth’s readers already know, but viewers must wait until March 2016 when the first “Allegiant” film — maybe to be titled “The Divergent Series: Allegiant, Part One” — is supposed to come out.

“Insurgent” reveals that the founders encrypted a time-release truth inside an urn-like container. Only a full-fledged Divergent has the skill set to access the secret video message within. Suspended in the air by eight tentacle-like cables dangling from the ceiling and hooked into a super-computer, Tris passes five intense sims keyed to the five different factions. Their respective emblems chiseled in stone will crumble into dust during the end credits.

Before “Insurgent” opened, fans could submit to less strenuous testing while seated in a sim chair. Samsung toured the country in a customized truck with the come-on: “Shatter Reality.” The five-city itinerary included a Chicago stop at Navy Pier, where the nearby 3-D IMAX theater beckons: “Watch a movie or be part of one.”


Widescreen ballyhoo of the 1950s touted a visual ‘wow’ surpassing traditional movie screens and new television sets. CinemaScope “puts you in the picture.” “You’re in the show with Todd-AO.” Cinerama aimed to transcend the proscenium: “The crowds who see it are literally projected into a realm of experience with unlimited horizons.” Today’s multiplexes equipped with Dolby Atmos audio systems use similar hype: “Feel every dimension. The movie comes alive in breathtaking detail as sounds move all around you, even overhead, so you feel like you’re inside the story.”

Donning a Samsung Gear VR headset (“As if you were at in front of a mega screen”), you encounter Kate Winslet’s character Jeanine in “a fully immersive, 360-degree narrative experience” set in a high-tech lab. If you didn’t see “Divergent,” she is the implacable coup-orchestrating leader of the Erudite faction. Jeanine installs remote mind-control sim transmitters in the heads of the Dauntless faction, manipulating them to conduct a pogrom against Abnegation.

“We must remove those who do not fit,” Jeanine forewarns. “You must not fail.”

“Subject 5 is ready,” you hear on the head phones. That’s you. Fans blow in your face to simulate Chicago wind and your chair shakes. Two “fearscapes” test you. The four-minute “4D” scene ends with this pre-scripted appraisal of your performance, not that you get to actually do anything: “Impressive. No one’s ever made it past the second simulation. Cut the subject loose. I want to study this one.”

That means you’re a Divergent, just like Tris. Fans seeing “Insurgent” find out that subject 6 and subject 7 die in sim tests ordered by Jeanine.

Screenwriters like to scare us away from any new technology that can immerse us in illusions more compelling than those CGI puts on multiplex screens. Is this Hollywood demonizing its future competition for audiences? Virtual reality is taken to extremes in two reactionary sci-fi films released in 2009.

“Gamer” imagines a near-future when “mass-scale, multi-player online games” enjoy mega-global popularity. Players use real-time remote transmitters to guide real people in lethal first-person shooter games with live ammunition. An evil billionaire (Michael C. Hall) has bigger designs than Jeanine in Roth’s books. He seeks to transmit mind control via insidious “nano-cells” in the bloodstream of the body politic: “A hundred million people who buy what I want them to buy, vote how I want them to vote, do pretty much damn well anything I figure they ought to do.”

In “Surrogates” people stay at home wearing VR gear to operate their better-looking robot stand-ins who go to work, make love and do everything else out in the world. The mastermind behind this technology, though, has second thoughts and unplugs us from this ruinous artifice.

Virtual reality is addictive in “Surrogates” and other storylines. Memories recorded from the cerebral cortex onto “playback” data-discs figure in the plot of “Strange Days” (1995). To re-experience thrills by proxy — including porn-like sex and chases resembling stunts in action films — customers go to a dealer (Ralph Fiennes) calling himself the “Santa Claus of the subconscious.” Sold on the black market, these recreational excursions into secondhand reality are outlawed.

By contrast, teens in “Divergent” and “Insurgent” are forced by law into simulations that overpower their senses.

A graduate of Barrington High School and Northwestern University, Roth says she got the idea for simulations from a psychology course. She learned about exposure therapy for treating fears. Specialists in this field write case reports about curing spider and cockroach phobias, among others. Clinical uses of virtual reality are described in publications like Military Medicine, Simulation in Healthcare, CyberPsychology & Behavior, and the Journal of Network and Computer Applications.

>Articles include: “What’s wrong with virtual trees?” and “Can Virtual Reality Increase the Realism of Role Plays Used to Teach College Women Sexual Coercion and Rape-Resistance Skills?” Polish soldiers heading to Afghanistan participated in a study of “Pre-Deployment VR Computer-Assisted Stress Inoculation Training.”

Post-traumatic stress disorder is addressed in the “Virtual Vietnam,” “Virtual Iraq” and “Virtual World Trade Center” simulations. Tortured asylum-seekers in Europe were treated similarly. Children and combat vets felt less pain when nurses were dressing their burn wounds, if patients were distracted playing VR games at the time. Mental health experts simulate psychotic hallucinations with VR. Surgical technique, public speaking and pedestrian safety are all taught with VR.Virtual reality is a training tool in sci-fi films. Things always go wrong. In “Virtuosity” (1995) Russell Crowe plays a VR character distilled from the psychological profiles of 183 serial killers. He is version 6.7 of software named SID (Sadistic, Intelligent, Dangerous): “I’m a 50 terabyte self-evolving neural network.” Created as an avatar for training exercises, his program downloads into an android that escapes the Law Enforcement Technology Advancement Center and wreaks havoc in Los Angeles.In “The Lawnmower Man” (1992) a scientist (Pierce Brosnan) at Virtual Space Industries proclaims: “Virtual reality holds the key to the evolution of the human mind.” For a test subject he picks the mentally challenged title character. A combination of VR sessions with doses of Nootropic turns him into a too-smart online cyber-being on a power trip: “Virtual reality will grow. It will be everywhere. … By the year 2001, there won’t be a person on this planet who isn’t hooked into it, and hooked into me.” In the sequel “Lawnmower Man 2: Beyond Cyberspace” (1996) the head of Virtual Light Institute envisions a virtual unity: “the future is one world, one thought, one mind.” This is not where the experiment was supposed to go.Writers sometimes get diagnosed as delusional. They are accused of thinking they’re omniscient and omnipotent, like God or the Lawnmower Man. It’s an occupational hazard for anyone presuming to invent new worlds and the new technologies inside them. Roth’s simulations in her Divergent trilogy and the Wachowskis’ world-like “neuro-interactive simulation” in their Matrix trilogy differ in scale, but the kick these three Chicagoans get as their designers puts them on the same page, if not ward.Virtual reality is a super-cool incarnation of the creative process itself. It’s understandable that filmmakers like to show off their sci-fi takes on techno-VR as we know it. VR scenes inspire virtuosic visuals, and dialogue about VR devices lets these films think out loud.In Roth’s novel “Insurgent” Tris notes how new biotechnology excites her brother, who belongs to Erudite. This faction of scientists and scholars is headquartered at University of Chicago’s glass-domed Mansueto Library in the first Divergent film.Tris says some Erudites are “fascinated by everything, dissatisfied until they find out how it works.” A backstory for that kind of curiosity is related by U. of C. historian Neil Harris. An “operational aesthetic” arose in the 1840s and 1850s, he argues in his 1973 book “Humbug: The Art of P. T.Barnum.” People liked to inquire, as a new form of fun. Deconstructing frauds and gizmos became a pastime. “Barnum understood that people enjoyed the opportunity to debate the issue of falsity, to discover how deception had been practiced, and was even more exciting than the discovery of fraud itself,” Harris writes.

Ad for a phantasmagoria show in London.

Ad for a phantasmagoria show in London.

Barnum’s populist shtick of divert-and-debunk was a replay of the patter of phantasmagoria impresarios who projected ghostly apparitions using the lens and lamps of the magic lantern, smoke, silvered mirrors and sound effects. “I will not show you ghosts, because there are no such things,” Philip Polidor assured audiences in 1793 Paris. “I am neither priest nor magician. I do not wish to deceive you; but I will astonish you.” He occasionally claimed he was a “physicist.”

“One knew ghosts did not exist, yet one saw them anyway, without knowing precisely how,” writes Stanford University English prof Terry Castle. U. of C. film prof Tom Gunning analyzes the “entertaining confusion” of a phantasmagoria show this way: “It can be simultaneously rational in its method and seemingly supernatural in its effect.” In pre-electric Europe, here was an operational aesthetic of the occult.The public entertained itself with virtual spirits, virtual travels and virtual vistas. Louis de Carmontelle, a French painter with a theatrical flair, debuted his new format for landscapes in 1783. On translucent paper he painted the fashionable royals on sylvan estates. Rolled up, the lengthy pictures were slowly cranked through a backlit box for viewing. The J. Paul Getty Museum presented this art in 2000 as “an 18th century motion picture” and “the cinema of the Enlightenment.”British painter Robert Barker patented his idea for realistic 360-degree canvases in 1787 as “An Entire New Contrivance or Apparatus … for the Purpose of Displaying Views of Nature.” He painted panoramas of Edinburgh and London. In both cities he charged admission to rotundas displaying his vistas.Other entrepreneurs offered “moving panoramas” to the public. One unrolled the passing view from a boat on a 30-mile trip on the river Thames; another sampled sights from a 100-mile trip on the river Clyde.Theaters later installed versions of these extended canvases to increase realism. A 3,000-foot one unfurled during “A Kentucky Girl” during its 1892 run at the Haymarket theater in Chicago. “One of the scenes will be a race between the heroine on a railroad velocipede and four moonshiners on a hand-car,” promised one newspaper account.An 1834 panorama simulated a passenger’s point-of-view on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway that had opened four years earlier. Germany’s first steam-powered railway — on a five-mile track between Furth and Nuremberg– began in 1835, despite protest by the Bavarian Royal College of Medicine. “Traveling in vehicles drawn by locomotives should be prohibited in the interest of public health. Such a rapid motion cannot but produce in the passengers the mental affection known as delirium furiosum. … To the mere onlooker, moreover, the thing is positively dangerous. A mere glance cast at a locomotive traveling at a very high speed is enough to produce the same mental derangement in the beholder.”The nervous physicians deemed it “absolutely necessary that a 10-foot wall should be built on each side of the line throughout the entire length, so that the flight of the iron horse may in no way unsettle the public eye and mind.” Despite their prescription, the Nuremberg Transport Museum of today includes an “interactive driving simulator” that seats tourists in a cab so they can drive a locomotive along “a computer-simulated track section.”German clinicians published a few diagnoses of damage to the nerves, spines and uteruses of train passengers. Anecdotes can be found about viewers overpowered by virtuality, though. Battles on land and sea were popular subjects of 1820s panoramas. Military bands added atmosphere. One panorama reportedly furnished such “a complete sensation of reality … that on the occasion of his visiting the exhibition, a young man seeing a party of British preparing to board an enemy’s ship, started from his seat with a hurra, and seemed quite surprised when he found that he was not really in the battle.”The realism of Chicago’s cycloramas, as indoor panoramas-in-the-round were advertised, never incited overreactions, although one newspaper commentator in 1874 lauded “Paris by Moonlight” as “better than a visit.” An 1877 pamphlet for the touring “The Siege of Paris” made the startling claim: “To realize that this magnificent pageant is, after all, only an illusion requires a stronger mental effort than to accept it for reality.” After seeing “Paris in Flames” another reporter enthused: “What a gorgeous subject Chicago would be for such a picture!”In April 1892 ten painters completed a 400-foot long canvas depicting the Chicago Fire of 1871. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., the Chicago Fire Cyclorama at Michigan and Madison promised: “Falling Walls, Burning Bridges, a Sea of Flame! Thousands of helpless and homeless in a mad furious flight for safety. No words can describe the matchless grandeur of the scene!” Admission was 50 cents for adults and 25 cents for children.A Chicago Tribune writer sensed “a realism that makes to spectator feel that he is not a mere onlooker, but an active participant in the terrible occurrence.” Five months later an adjacent building caught fire, and the cyclorama suffered fire and water damage. A temporary closing notice blaming overzealous firemen read, in part: “The boys mistook the painting for the real fire.”

A drawing of the Spectatorium, proposed in Chicago but never finished.

A drawing of the Spectatorium, proposed in Chicago but never finished.

Chicago was the site of the Spectatorium proposed by Steele MacKaye in 1892, as “an entirely new species of building, invented and devised for the production of a new order of entertainment entitled a spectatorio.” Funds ran out for this multimedia emporium of simulations.

To achieve “the most advanced artistic realism” therein he invented and patented stagecraft. His Nebulator to create clouds onstage might have improved upon the “nebulous lantern” used in the 1770s to beam spectres onto smoke curtains. Other MacKaye devices were illuminoscopes, coloraturas and a luxauleator.A never-built entertainment machine that aspired to virtually transport its passengers was inspired by H.G. Wells’ novella “The Time Machine,” first serialized in early 1895. In October of that year, an English showman patented an amusement that shook seats and blew wind at patrons, rather like Samsung’s “Insurgent” tie-in: “My invention consists of a novel form of exhibition whereby the spectators have presented to their view scenes which are supposed to occur in the future or past, while they are given the sensation of voyaging upon a machine through time.”Two virtual rides appeared in Paris at the Universal Exposition in 1900. Passengers stepped aboard the mock deck of a pitching and yawing ship to behold a moving panorama of maritime scenes in the Mareorama.More cinematic was the Cineorama, patented in 1897. Its passengers boarded a hot-air balloon-like platform, complete with rigging and ballast, to view an actual balloon ascent and descent. Film cameras had earlier recorded a real ride over Paris. The footage played on ten projectors in a circle for a 360-degree moving picture panorama.Moving pictures of moving trains delivered more thrill than peril. “When you can throw a picture of an express train on a screen in such a realistic way that persons who see it scramble to get out of its way and faint from fright, it’s about time to stop,” scolded the New York Telegram on October 15, 1896. Two patrons at the Olympia Music Hall “screamed and fainted” when viewing “Empire State Express.” The newspaper backtracked two days later with the qualification that the women “nearly” fainted and amended the account with: “They recovered in time to laugh at their needless excitement.”In 1905 George Hale and Fred Gifford patented the “Pleasure-Railway,” an attraction seating passengers inside a mechanically rocking railroad car with clickety-clack sound effects and a conductor taking tickets. Films projected on a screen placed at the front of the car had been shot by putting a camera at the front of a locomotive traveling on real tracks. “Phantom ride” was the term for this genre of specialty film. That expression evokes the uncanny effects experienced in phantasmagoria of old.Hale’s Tours of the World venues were very popular for a spell. By 1906 Chicago had three of these amusements: one on State Street and two at the White City and Riverview parks. There are no reports of their immersive realism triggering the delirium those German doctors forecast back in 1835 for travelers on real trains.

We have bigger — much bigger — things to worry about in the realm of virtual realism. And not just from Hollywood, lauded as “the Baghdad of Phantasmagoria” by a Chicago photoplay magazine in 1925.

Suspicion of appearances predates the simulations Tris transcends. Plato likened what we see in the world under the sun to shadows cast by a fire on a cave wall, as if we were prisoners in chains. “Seventeenth-century baroque culture,” argues law prof Richard K. Sherwin,” produced a phantasmagoria of endlessly shifting shapes and patterns. It was steeped in self-reflexive illusion: a hyper-awareness of illusion fueling illusion.”

Since the Enlightenment, technology for faking reality increased exponentially. So did suspecting it. And not just by the clinically paranoid or postmodern academics like Jean Baudrillard. In 1991 he wrote a series of provocative pieces in The Guardian titled “The Gulf War Will Not Take Place,” “The Gulf War Is Not Taking Place” and “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place.” The “willing suspension of disbelief” has come a long way from its 1817 origins.

According to a 2014 paper titled “Constraints on the Universe as a Numerical Simulation,” published in the European Physical Journal, our known universe is not what we think. Or rather, it could be something that others — not us — thought up. Though not to entertain us.

Two theoretical physicists in Seattle, along with a colleague in Bonn, figured out reality is virtual. Really. They are like Tris, with her Divergent knack for sensing when she is inside a simulation. Except they use lattice quantum chromodynamics theory. This is the operational aesthetic applied to the ultimate simulation.

When an interviewer at New Scientist asked if this was just “science fiction,” one of the paper’s authors stated: “the answer, statistically speaking, is that we’re more likely to be living in a simulation.” Not reality.

Uh, oh.

Bill Stamets is a local freelance writer and critic.

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