by Bill Stamets

“Ready Player One”: Marx and Meta not in play

Posted in Uncategorized by Bill Stamets on April 1, 2018

“Ready Player One”
directed by Steven Spielberg
written by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline, based on Cline’s novel
acted by Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, T.J. Miller, Simon Pegg, Mark Rylance
presented by Warner Bros. Pictures, Village Roadshow Pictures, Amblin Entertainment
MPAA-rated PG-13 for “sequences of sci-fi action violence, bloody images, some suggestive material, nudity and language”
running time: 140 minutes
Chicago screening options include 70mm at Music Box Theater, 3733 N. Southport, and Navy Pier IMAX, 700 E. Grand
by Bill Stamets
“Ready Player One” is the touching story of a Columbus, Ohio high school senior finding the confidence to kiss his first love. Steven Spielberg’s thoroughly entertaining two-hour and twenty-minute saga of adolescent self-actualizing is set amidst an epic contest to preserve the status quo of an escapist entertainment corporation in the year 2045.

Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) takes his cue from James Halliday (Mark Rylance), the world-acclaimed creator of the OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation) whose lifelong regret was not kissing the one woman he loved.

Regrettably, this teen odyssey deflects from seeing the OASIS as a digital opiate of the masses. The emotional maturity of an orphaned gamer who does not get out much– not the political economy of a massive multiplayer online immersive simulation game– is the tiny heart of this “action adventure” observing five online friends playing the biggest electronic game ever. Warner Bros. Pictures, Amblin Entertainment and Village Roadshow Pictures tender a $175 million prospectus for a user-friendly simulation of a nondenominational paradise.

“Ready Player One” invests no ironic narrative interest in a last-century lens-based movie medium now valorizing a consumer VR (virtual reality) tech platform that could make screenwriters, screens, theaters and concession stands obsolete. The film’s closing disingenuous claim is that real life is better than escapism. The lifework of James Halliday and Steven Spielberg, of course, belies that commonplace.

Screenwriters Zak Penn (“Last Action Hero”) and Ernest Cline improve Cline’s 2011 novel. Streamlining decreases locales, truncates chronology, and reassigns a couple plot turns to different characters. A virtual car race through Manhattan to Central Park is among the CGI spectacles replacing humdrum episodes in Cline’s text. Profuse references to eighties pop culture are filtered out. Many remain, very many. Two “Spielberg” namedrops in the book are cut, as are two uses of “fascist” to smear the corporate villain. Halliday’s corporation, the one we are supposed to root for, is Gregarious Games, shortened from Gregarious Simulation Systems in the book. A half-minute of ambiguous dialogue about a spectral character is tacked on for the film’s beguiling finale.

“Ready Player One” opens with Wade introducing himself and the OASIS: “I was born in 2027. After the corn syrup drought, after the bandwidth riots. After people stopped trying to fix problems. Just tried to out-live them… These days, reality is a bummer. Everyone’s looking for way to escape. And that’s why Halliday, that’s why he was such a hero to us… James Halliday saw the future and then he built it. He gave us a place to go, a place called the OASIS… He showed us we could go somewhere without going anywhere at all… People come to the OASIS for all the things they can do, but they stay because of all the things they can be.”

When he logs on “to escape the shitty hand that life dealt me” Wade becomes Parzival, his avatar in the OASIS. There he virtually hangs out with a few other avatars. These friends have never met in person. But they will. When they do “Ready Player One” will have little to say about online versus offline identities.

Parzival’s main reason to be in the OASIS is to one day own it. Upon his death Halliday hailed all OASIS players in a prerecorded video: Be the first to meet three challenges, find three keys, unlock three gates, and thereby win an Easter egg, as gamers term a special item hidden inside a game. Alluding to the Easter bunny, not the risen Christ. The ultimate winner gets OASIS and Gregarious Games, the company that Halliday co-founded in Columbus, Ohio. And a half-trillion dollars.

Five years later no one has figured it out. Most quit trying. Parzival competes with super-serious OASIS players called “gunters,” as in egg hunters. Most belong to clans to consolidate their efforts. Others, like Parzival and his four pals, toil solo.

Oologists, as in egg scientists, are a paid cadre of robin-egg-blue-sweater-wearing obsessives who over-analyze Halliday’s vast trove of eighties trivia to extract clues. Oology, by the way, is not another word Cline made up. The Oxford English Dictionary cites its origin in 1831 with the debut of a journal titled “British Oology: being illustrations of the eggs of British birds, with figures of each species, as far as practicable, drawn and coloured from nature: accompanied by descriptions of the materials and situation of their nests, number of eggs, &c.”

The Oology Department is inside Innovative Online Industries (IOI), the second largest company in the world after Gregarious Games. IOI dispatches its commando-styled avatars into the OASIS to hunt for Halliday’s mega-egg. They kill the avatars of gunters in their way. IOI also kills real people in the real world by deploying armed security agents and drones bearing explosives.

The detailing of two worlds in “Ready Player One” is telling. Living online differs from living offline. What do onscreen Columbus and online OASIS, one more fictive than the other, reflect about the reality where Spielberg, Cline and Penn live? They identify with Halliday, to whom they give the line: “I build worlds.” Game-playing interests them more than world-philosophizing.

The world of 2045 we see in the theater is limited to Columbus, Ohio. Grey skies. Drab garb. No trees or dogs. Meager smiles. Wade wakes up in his aunt’s trailer. He sleeps on her washing machine. Trailers are stacked in ramshackle towers. As Wade climbs down the metal scaffolding, we get peeks of his neighbors outfitted with VR visors and plugged into the OASIS. He sneaks into his hideout under a pile of rusty wrecked cars. That’s where he enters and exits the OASIS via an internet hook-up.

The Stacks, as Wade’s neighborhood is known, is a “ghetto trash rat warren,” sneers Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), the so-easy-to-hate head of operations at IOI. Apart from a few street scenes, the only other side of Columbus in sight is the sleek headquarters of IOI where Sorrento runs the Halliday egg hunt like a corporate espionage and military intelligence mission. It’s a two-corporation economy, implies the film. I spotted only two ads. An IOC sign reads “Enlist Today.” A video billboard for haptic body suits reads: “Feel of Real/No Pain No Gain.”

Spielberg spares us the trope of television news clips of strife to bring us up to date on how the country got this way. He dispenses with the video newsfeeds watched by characters in Cline’s book. I am not even sure “United States” appears on the screen or soundtrack. Two things have not changed. A drugstore displays a “Medicaid Accepted” sign. And the police still issue the command: “Drop-the-gun-now-on-the-ground-turn-around-hands-on-your-head-walk-back-towards-me” without shooting to death the white man in a suit brandishing a gun.

Cline supplied more detail in his novel. (His site reproduces the covers of 16 translations, with Bulgarian, Japanese and Russian editions to come.) Sorrento ranted at greater length about Wade and his kind as “human cockroaches out there collecting food vouchers and using up precious oxygen.”

The popularity of the OASIS is boosted by “an ongoing energy crisis” and “an ongoing economic recession,” Cline writes. Gregarious Games and IOI headquartered in the same city yields a local upside in infrastructure: “Columbus doesn’t suffer the from rolling blackouts that plague most major U.S. cities.” The terrain between urban centers is described as a “lawless badlands” when Wade travels on “the deteriorating interstate highway system.” The 40 mph electric bus has “armor plating, bulletproof windows, and solar panels on the roof… A team of six heavily armed guards… protect the vehicle and its passengers in the event of a hijacking by road agents or scavengers.”

OASIS is far more fun. “You can climb Mount Everest– with Batman!” enthuses Wade as Parzival in his virtual tour for Spielberg’s audience. If you virtually fall from a virtual peak to your virtual death, you won’t feel it for real. What else is in the OASIS? Public schools and prostitution motels. No places of worship. Cline wrote in his book that Wade does not vote in local and national elections. “I did take time to vote in the OASIS elections, however, because their outcomes actually affected me,” relates Wade.

VR, videogames and films preoccupy the creators of the 2011 novel and its 2018 film adaptation. Gamer geeks can identify with the gunters and oologists. “Ready Player One” readers and “Ready Player One” moviegoers are alike as proxy gunters.

A clue in Robert Zemeckis’s 1985 film “Back to the Future” lets Parzival traverse Halliday’s first gate. Wade’s avatar tops the OASIS scoreboard. Parzival is instantly a global celeb. IOI targets him as an imminent threat to their takeover of OASIS, which Sorrento deems “the world’s most important economic resource.”

Parzival diligently mines a virtual archive for clues leading to the second gate. Halliday planted items for his site to relay to an alert gunter like Parzival. The archive’s English-accented curator avatar leaks a tip: “Rosebud,” a reference to an opaque clue in Orson Welles’ 1941 film. “Citizen Kane,” like “Ready Player One,” relates a quest to unlock a secret about a media titan. “Halliday kept track of every movie he ever watched, the week and the year he rewatched it, and how many times,” Parzival narrates.

Digital dioramas at Halliday’s autobiographical museum reenact incidents from his past. Parzival and Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), his online crush and competitor-turned-partner, eavesdrop on conversations. They hear Halliday recount an awkward first date in 2025: “She wanted to go dancing. So we watched a movie.” A new clue leads to Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” which likely contains yet another clue, so their avatars rush to the Overlook Theater and instantly find themselves inside the Overlook Hotel where Kubrick set his 1980 film based on a 1977 Stephen King novel. Art3mis scores a breakthrough by asking the avatar of Halliday’s date if she’d like to dance.

Cline incorporated a more on-message ‘80s film in his novel. Halliday hid one of his gates behind a poster for the 1983 film “WarGames.” Parzival points out: “`WarGames’ had been one of Halliday’s all-time favorite movies. Which is why I had watched it over three-dozen times.” Memorized dialogue equips him to unlock a gate. Parzival succeeds at a later gate thanks to watching “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” he specifies, “exactly 157 times.”

“WarGames,” directed by John Badham, features a Seattle high school kid (Matthew Broderick) hacking into a NORAD game titled Global Thermonuclear War. Helped by his girlfriend (Ally Sheedy), he averts Armageddon with the U.S.S.R. Parzival recites all the teen hacker’s lines with spot-on role-playing: “I was Matthew Broderick’s character in the movie `WarGames,’ I was in the movie.”

“Ready Player One” makes no play to put us inside itself using VR-like tricks, circa 2045. Two AMC theaters in Chicago where I attended preview screenings delivered meta-cinema moments of their own. The pre-presentation promo for Dolby Cinema promised a sensory experience almost on par with the OASIS: “Astonishing Brightness and Color/ Depth, Detail and Realism/ Moving Audio/ Completely Captivating.” Colliding ice cubes and bubbles of carbonation in a big cup of Coca-Cola sounded like the RMS Titanic repeatedly striking North Atlantic icebergs.

“`Ready Player One’ is a game-changer in Dolby Cinema,” touts AMC’s internet site. “The sleek, power recliners reverberate to move you deep into the story,” continues the come-on. The tech is not just “putting you at the center of the story” but it’s “letting you step into another reality and surrender to the story.”

“Watch a Movie or Be Part of One,” hypes AMC’s Navy Pier IMAX. Captivated participating is limited to sitting. The OASIS, on the other hand, will entertain in the near future without ever expecting us to “surrender to the story.” We are the storytellers. Exit writers for passive spectators; enter coders for interactive players.

True to his 1970s sense of high concept– a film premise simple enough to pitch in 25 words– Spielberg is neither conceptual nor high-minded about the film/game nexus his latest crowdpleaser. The big insight the late Halliday– via his artificially intelligent, archive-uploaded interactive avatar– imparts to Parzival is a sophomoric stoner tautology: “reality is real, you understand what I’m saying?” “Ready Player One” aims lower than Spielberg’s “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” (2001) and “Minority Report” (2002). Those near future sci-fi efforts are rather serious considerations of corporate ethics and technologies of virtuality.

“Even with all the popcorn in a film like ‘Ready Player One,’ it does still have social meaning,” Spielberg told the New York Times. What could it be? The 71-year-old filmmaker might not have said what he meant by that, or the writer or his editor decided it did to matter. Spielberg told Reuters: “In a way, our story is a cautionary tale as well as a great adventure.” The one cautionary scene, however, is played for laughs. A young mom is too immersed in OASIS play to pay any mind to her son who’s trying to let her know there’s a pan in flames on the kitchen stove.

Someone tried to impart “social meaning” to Spielberg’s film by invoking the rhetoric of  righteous rebellion. Advertisements read: “A Better Reality Awaits,” “Break Free” and “Accept Your Reality… Or Fight For A Better One.” I doubt the writers of those taglines read the book or shooting script. OASIS occupants accept OASIS as is. They do not want to “break free” from it. They are contented consumers. There is no “better” OASIS to “fight for.” Unless IOI gets its hands on the Easter egg. Then the OASIS will certainly get worse, unacceptably so. Fighting for a better virtual reality at that point would just be a fight to bring back the old OASIS.

Fighting for a better real world is inconceivable. Cline’s novel reported: “The Great Recession was now entering its third decade, and unemployment was still at a record high. Even the fast-food joints in my neighborhood had a two-year waiting list for job applicants.”

There is only a sliver of resistance in Spielberg’s dystopic 2045. Samantha (aka, Art3mis) belongs to a small cell located in the Stacks. We learn little about her comrades; one is shown buying fresh carrots at the market. They recruit Wade after knocking him unconscious with an inhalant. When he wakens in their lair, Samantha quotes a “Star Wars” line: “Welcome to the rebellion, Wade.” They are resisting IOI, mostly online. There are no boots-on-the-ground guerrilla operations against other powers-that-be. It’s not a have-nots versus haves scenario. Samantha wants to win the OASIS and spread the wealth to feed the hungry.

Sorrento is unambiguously the bad guy. How bad? He crows about “the first of our planned upgrades” at IOI: “Once we roll back some of Halliday’s ad restrictions, we estimate we can sell up to 80% of an individual’s visual field before inducing seizures.” Boo!

IOI ought to incite political opposition for operating Loyalty Centers, the Orwellian name for its indentured servitude facilities. People in debt to IOI for internet service fees or VR gear, like visors and haptic body suits, or people whose avatars are behind in their virtual bills in the OASIS are rounded up and incarcerated. Samantha’s ill father was worked to death in a Loyalty Center. She lands in one too. IOC locks a visor on her head and forces her to operate her avatar in OASIS doing dangerous menial labor with explosives.

Since OASIS is coded entirely out of ones and zeros, it does not add up that virtual demolition, virtual construction, or any other virtual labor by indentured avatars would do what coders are doing to demolish and construct parts of this virtual world. The film reworks Cline’s novel here. Originally in the book it was Wade who’s forced into a Loyalty Center. But his work there made more sense. He did online tech support to help IOI customers with their OASIS issues.

Virtual work by real workers is critiqued more incisively in “Sleep Dealer,” Alex Rivera’s 2008 political indie set in the near future. The U.S. has closed the Mexican border. Virtual migration of manual labor replaces bodily migration, legal and illegal, of laborers. Internet feedback links let a Mexican worker in Mexico operate a cyber-robot on a job site in the U.S. The remote worker could be a welder, nanny, waiter or orange-picker. “We give the United States what they’ve always wanted– all the work without the worker,” explains a manager in Tijuana.

Released in 2009, “Surrogates” is a sci-fi thriller like “Sleep Dealer.” Both weigh mind/body duality issues skipped by “Ready Player One.” “Surrogates” director Jonathan Mostow adapts “The Surrogates,” a graphic novel by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele set in 2054. This noir detective tale, reset to the “Present Day,” sharply judges virtuality. Arguably reactionary, humanist and technophobic, “Surrogates” moralizes about people who purposely experience the world by proxy.

“Become anyone you want to be from the comfort and safety of your own home,” advertises Virtual Self Industries. “You can finally live the life you’ve always dreamt of without any risk or danger to your self.” Corporate motto is “Life… Only Better.”

You can make your life better by buying a very life-like robot that’s better in every bodily way. As in the OASIS, you can choose your gender and age, height and weight, and the colors of your skin, hair and eyes. You are limited to a humanoid template. The OASIS offers unlimited species, life forms and even nonliving things to choose as your avatar.

Uncommonly good-looking, the surrogates in “Surrogates” only exist offline. At home you plug into a special recliner that lets you remotely operate your surrogate via the internet. It goes to your place of work– and play– where it sees, talks, hears, tastes and feels everything you would if you were there yourself using your own senses.

The Prophet (Ving Rhames) exhorts people or their proxies, via artificial eyes and ears if their surrogates are paying attention: “We’re not meant to experience the world through a machine.” An entry at the Multiversal Omnipedia site reports that the first surrogate, made for a quadriplegic, climbed Mount Everest. Not with Batman, though.

Years later the wealthy reclusive inventor (James Cromwell) changes his mind and condemns surrogacy as “a perversion” and “an addiction”: “I changed the course of human history when I created surrogates. Now I’m going to change it back.” He unleashes a virus to  irreversibly erase the operating systems of all surrogates. Boston streets are strewn with inert, insensate humanoids unyoked from their human operators. Pale and blinking at the sun, the populace stumbles out of doors in their bathrobes to live again `in real life,’ or IRL as they say online.

Unlike his counterpart in “Surrogates,” Halliday in “Ready Player One” has no change of heart about his historic creation: “Some things are perfect they way they are.” Nevertheless he shows Parzival a big red button that can delete OASIS in toto. It’s unthinkable the new owner will hit it intentionally. Wade too is OK with the utopian game space as Gregarious Games always ran it, although he outlaws Loyalty Centers operated by IOI.

As entertainers in a capitalist society, Steven Spielberg and Ernest Cline are not typically paid to demystify their medium and disenchant fans. Did they sublimate reflexivity into satire (e.g. “corn syrup drought” and Parzival watched a Monty Python film “exactly 157 times”)? The film and its source novel are culturally self-conscious only insofar as they indulge fanboys and fangirls. Gunters and oogolists partake in a purely tactical nostalgia to decode ‘80s fan Halliday. Absent in 2045 are fans of new songs, TV shows, toys, comics or novels, assuming anyone is making new ones in 2045.

“Ready Player One” is incurious about movies, games and virtual reality making us see, listen, feel, think, wish and live differently. “OASIS would ultimately change the way people around the world lived, worked, and communicated,” conceded Gregarious Games co-founder Ogden Morrow in Cline’s book. Simon Pegg plays him in the film. He is double cast as an avatar key to Parzival’s quest.

The film trims Morrow’s misgivings. According to the book, “he felt that the OASIS has evolved into something horrible” and wrote in his autobiography: “It has become a self-imposed prison for humanity.” Wade recounts: “As the era of cheap, abundant energy drew to a close, poverty and unrest began to spread like a virus. Every day, more and more people had reason to seek solace inside Halliday and Morrow’s virtual utopia.”

Headlines of articles papering the interior of Wade’s hideout include a Wired magazine cover asking: “Is James Halliday Playing Games… or Playing God?” In a voiceover the acolyte lauds the supreme gamer and Easter-egger: “he wasn’t just the owner of the world’s biggest company, he was like a god People loved him. They worshipped him as much as his creation.”

OASIS looks like Karl Marx’s nightmare of capital’s dream of distracting the masses with phantasmagoria. “Die Religion … ist das Opium des Volkes,” Marx wrote in 1843 while living in Paris. “Religion… is the opium of the people.” This dictum is found in his “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction,” published in German in 1844.

Here is the line in context: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.”

“Marx himself used opium,” write historians Victoria Berridge and Edward Griffiths in “Opium and the People: Opiate Use in Nineteenth-Century England.” His use was medical and metaphorical, argues U.K. sociologist Andrew McKinnon.

Opium did not suffer opprobrium at first. Among early auspicious mentions: “Bullein’s Bulwarke of Defence against all Sicknesse, Soarenesse and Woundes” in 1579. “Opium at prefent is in great efteem, and is one of the moft valuable of all the fimple medicines,” indicated “Encyclopædia Britannica; or a Dictionary of Arts and Sciences” in 1771. “In 1820s England, there were somewhere between 16,000 and 26,000 opium sellers,” note Berridge and Griffiths.

The year Marx penned his infamous metaphor, opium use was surveyed in “First Report of the Commissioners of Inquiry into the State of Large Towns”: “It was stated by the Rev. Mr Clay, that in the town of Preston alone, in 1843, `upwards of sixteen hundred families were in the habit of using Godfrey’s Cordial [labeled a “children’s opiate”], or some other equally injurious compound.’” Other brands to pacify English children were Atkinson’s Infants’ Preservative, Street’s Infants Quietness, and Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, which was imported to England from United States.

Reformers raised alarms about “opium poisoning” from overdosing. Opium was also used for suicide. Starting in the 1850s drafts of the Pharmacy Act and the Sale of Poisons Bill proposed restricting opiate sales in England. Stigmatizing opium users as moral defects came later.

OASIS is Halliday’s Remedy For Interpersonal Isolation. “I created the OASIS because I never felt at home in the real world,” Halliday shares with Parzival. “I just didn’t know how to connect with people there. I was afraid for all my life. Right until the day I knew my life was ending. That was when I realized that as terrifying and painful as reality can be it’s also the only place that you can get a decent meal. Because reality is real.” (An oologist would catch that “decent meal” quip as coming from a line about getting a “good steak” in a 1977 New Yorker story by Woody Allen.)

After kissing Samantha, Wade announces: “We closed the OASIS on Tuesdays and Thursdays. People need to spend more time in the real world because like Halliday said, `reality is the only thing that’s real.’” Once there, in real life, outside of the OASIS– what will people do besides kiss?

To save the future of the OASIS, Parzival united OASIS avatars loyal to Gregarious Games and lead them to victory over the avatars of IOI. Any chance Wade and Samantha will lead offline masses to repair present reality? At the beginning of “Ready Player One” Wade says the OASIS came along “after people stopped trying to fix problems.” If 2045 is the year to make America great again, its fixers must log out of the OASIS first. And that can be uncomfortable. “It’s the only place that feels like I mean anything,” reveals Wade in the trailer. That line is not heard in the film.

Spectrally evanescent avatars in the OASIS are like impotent ideas attacked in “The Holy Family, or Critique of Critical Criticism,” a polemic Marx and Fredrick Engels wrote in late 1844, again in Paris. It was their first collaboration. They urged: “Ideas cannot carry out anything at all. In order to carry out ideas men are needed who can exert practical force.”

Online players and offline people are alienated, like “ideas” and “men” in 1844. Dualist disconnects are built into existence in 2045. What is to be done, practically? “Ready Player One” entertains no idea. When is good for you?

Tuesdays and Thursdays are open.

Insurgently virtual realism: a cosmic uncanny cinema

Posted in Uncategorized by Bill Stamets on April 19, 2015

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 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. Except for 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 1950’s 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 second-hand 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 1840’s and 1850’s, 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 past-time. “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.

Barnum’s populist schtick of divert-and-debunk was a replay of the patter of phantasmagoria impresarios who projected ghostly apparitions using the lens and lamp of a 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.” “Lantern of fear” was a common name for the optical devices used long before Roth came up with “fear landscape.”

“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 eighteenth 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 1820’s 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 over-reactions, 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 over-zealous firemen read, in part: “The boys mistook the painting for the real fire.”

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 multi-media 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 1770’s 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 old 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 St. 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.