“What is real? How do you define ‘real’? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain,” Morpheus, The Matrix.

Simulation plays a far larger role in society than many people realise, and is actually embedded quite deeply in much of our fiction. From films and television shows to video games and books, the idea of simulated realities – whether digital or otherwise, is utilised frequently.

Many of the most famous and well-regarded movies of recent years tackle simulation in a number of interesting ways, and five of these famous films have been listed below.

The Matrix

This film was released in 1999 to both critical and commercial acclaim, taking in over $463 million worldwide. It’s arguably both a hallmark film and an excellent use of simulation – making us question what reality is and how we perceive it.

In the well-known film, humanity lives in an apocalyptic future where they’re harvested for energy by a race of sentient machines.

Neo, the main character, is awakened from what’s called the ‘Matrix’, a simulated reality for humanity to live in, unaware that they’re being use as a power source.

A select few humans are free like Neo, and are able to exert control over the digital reality by leaping across buildings, dodging bullets and even changing reality as they see fit.

Few other films in recent years have dealt with simulation in the way the Matrix has, but the subject will likely be broached over the next few years.

TRON

Quite similar in its approach to simulation as the Matrix, TRON is another famous film about alternate digital realities. Released in 1982, it was one of the first films to utilise computer generated imagery to great effect, used throughout the film.

The story centres on a computer hacker, Kevin, who is broken down and transported into a digital world by a software pirate known as Master Control, the antagonist of the film. The hacker is rematerialised in a 3D simulated work of computers – one made up of colourful geometric landscapes.

Throughout the film, Kevin navigates the virtual world, attempting to outmanoeuvre Master Control, and exploring the digital reality.

Like the Matrix, TRON tackles simulation in a digital way, investigating what’s possible in virtual worlds. It’s comparable to video games of the time in terms of colour and the environments, and was followed by a sequel called TRON: Legacy in 2010.

The Cabin in the Woods

Cabin in the Woods is the most recent film on our list, and uses simulation in a horror context. This film deals with typical tropes in the horror movie genre such as characters, locations and scenarios.

In the film, five college friends travel to a remote cabin in the woods for a vacation, but instead find themselves at the centre of an ancient ritual run by a seemingly ordinary corporation. The friends face off against cliché monsters as they try to unravel exactly why they’re being used.

Simulation is uniquely used here as a primary plot device, as the friends believe they actually staying at a normal cabin. They soon discover that it’s actually part of a massive facility with sensors and cameras controlling their every move.

Cabin in the Woods is different to many of the other films on this list, in that it doesn’t tackle simulation in the virtual sense. The characters in the film are involved in a physical simulation.

eXistenZ

Most certainly the strangest film on the list, eXistenZ also tackles simulation in a way few other films have, while incorporating a number of interesting ideas.

The film centres on a game designer, Allegra Geller, who is working on a new virtual reality game called eXistenZ. At the outset, she’s testing the game with a focus group when an assassin attacks her using a gun seemingly made of organic material.

During the assassination attempt, her ‘pod’, the device used to access eXistenZ, is damaged. In order to inspect the state of the game, Allegra and a marketing trainee enter the virtual world.

eXistenZ is notable in that it blends virtual and real worlds to make it difficult to determine reality.  Throughout the film, there are innovative uses of costume discontinuities in order to show the characters transitioning between the real and virtual worlds.

The Truman Show

Different again from how simulation is portrayed, The Truman Show saw acclaim upon its 1998 release. Truman Burbank lives his life believing everything to be normal, until he realises it’s actually taking place inside a giant city-sized studio.

Every one of his friends, family members and neighbours are actors playing roles on the world’s largest television show – The Truman Show.

Upon the discovery that he has been living in a simulated reality, Truman sets out to discover exactly why he’s being used and who’s controlling his world.

The Truman Show can be compared to the Matrix in how it deals with a person waking up to the realities of living in a simulated world. Unlike Neo, however, Truman doesn’t back away from the realities of the virtual world and seeks to unravel the truth.

 

This list didn’t cover every film that uses simulation, and there are a vast number that tackle the idea in different ways. As simulation continues to become a part of everyday life, used in sectors ranging from research through to medicine, we’re certainly going to see more films centred around the field.

It’s going to be interesting, however, to see exactly how future films tackle simulation over the next few years. There’s no denying that we’re certain to see a number of exciting works across films, television and games.

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