Five films that brought VR cinema to life

From Scent of Mystery to The Matrix, Hollywood has long been fascinated with the concepts of viewer immersion and virtual reality cinema. Here we reflect on five key movies that aim to lift viewers into another world…

29th February 2016
Five films that brought VR cinema to life (The Matrix © Warner Brothers/Getty Images)

Scent of Mystery (1960)

Denholm Elliott, Peter Lorre, Beverly Bentley
Audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes - Not available
Worldwide box office (£) - Not available

The Scent of Mystery (© Everett/REX/Shutterstock)
Needless to say this movie stinks! (© Everett/REX/Shutterstock)

The first film to be choreographed with immersive smells in the production process is a sub-Hitchcockian murder conspiracy that finds an elusive young American tourist (played by Beverly Bentley) being targeted by a vengeful conspiracy. Denholm Elliott (Marcus in Indiana Jones), German film legend Peter Lorre and Paul Lukas are amongst the goodies and villains running around Spain in pursuit.

VR influence

The ‘AromaRama’ of documentary Behind the Great Wall may, just, have been the debut film to deliver smells to the audience, but the ‘Smell-O-Vision’ of Scent of Mystery was the first film to be made with odour projection in mind during production. The process saw smells piped through plastic tubing into audiences at specially equipped cinemas, with fresh bread, booze and tobacco just a trio of smells to reach the nostrils of the punters. The audience reaction was mixed, the pun-filled critical consensus worse and the film stank, sorry, sank without trace at the box office. ‘Smell-O-Vision’ was once included in Time’s ‘Top 100 Worst Ideas of All Time’ list, but it has infrequently been returned to, with John Waters parodying the idea in Polyester with ‘Odorama' scratch-and-sniff cards in 1982, and Rugrats Go Wild repeating the trick this century. Thankfully the makers of Blazing Saddles didn’t use the technology for that campfire scene…


Tron (1982)

Jeff Bridges, Bruce Boxleitner, David Warner
Audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes - 69%
Worldwide box office - £19,309,685

Tron (© Alamy)
Light Cycles, one of Tron's iconic VR scenes (© Alamy)

Computer game developer Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) is digitally broken down into a 3-D graphical world of computers called the Grid. Flynn is forced to participate in gladiatorial games where his only chance of escaping is by joining forces with a security program, named Tron. Together they duel with the artificial intelligence Master Control Program that holds them captive.

VR influence

Director Steven Lisberger’s groundbreaking Tron experienced a lukewarm commercial reaction on release, but it’s since entered the annals of cult classic, influencing the likes of Toy Story, a famous Simpsons’ episode and Daft Punk, who went on to produce the score for the sequel, 2010’s Tron: Legacy. A rare film about, not based on, computer games (a medium that’s long fired our VR imaginations), Tron’s narrative is one of the first plots driven by the concept of virtual reality, with the ‘human sucked into a computer’ theme continued in War Games and Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over.


The Matrix (1999)

Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss
Audience rating on Rotten Tomato -  85%
Worldwide box office - £332,427,225

The Matrix (© Warner Brothers/Getty)
Did Neo take the red pill or the blue pill? (© Warner Brothers/Getty)

Computer hacker Neo (Keanu Reeves) learns about the true nature of his reality and his role in the battle against its controllers. His consciousness is embedded in the ‘Matrix’ – a virtual-reality simulation created by self-aware machines. Neo is given a choice: take the blue pill and return to his virtual existence, or take the red pill to find out “how deep the rabbit hole goes”.

VR influence

A critical and commercial smash on release, The Matrix capitulated the then Wachowski brothers, Andy and Larry (who has since become Lana), into the Hollywood directorial A-league. The film’s ‘bullet time’ action has influenced the likes of Swordfish and, erm, Shrek, but it’s the virtual reality narrative that lingers on in the likes of Inception, Source Code and The Island. What’s real? How do you define real? Where are the boundaries of our own world? Are we awake? are just some of the questions posed (mostly by Larry Fishburne’s Morpheus). The ‘Matrix’ concept was actually used in a Doctor Who episode from 1976, and the blockbuster, whether intentionally or not, (re)visits the narrative of a huge computer system that humans can plug in/out of via a port in their heads.


House Of Wax (1953)

Vincent Price, Carolyn Jones, Frank Lovejoy, 
Audience rating on Rotten Tomato - 72%
Worldwide box office - £17,072,551

House of Wax (© Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock)
Madame Tussauds was never the same again (© Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock)

Vincent Price plays Professor Henry Jarrod, a wax sculptor with a museum in New York. When a financial partner suggests that they burn the museum down to receive insurance money, Jarrod tries to stop him, only to be badly beaten in the burning museum. Escaping horribly disfigured, Jarrod builds a new museum that showcases crimes, including the murder of his former business partner…

VR influence

Back in the 1950s, with television halving cinema attendance, Tinseltown launched its inaugural three-dimensional ventures, with Warner Bros.’ House of Wax the first 3-D flick in colour. Unlike Scent of Mystery (above), the House of Wax is a superior film in its own right, with the 3-D elements being used sparingly but effectively. Employing two separate 35 mm film prints for the left-eye and right-eye images on separate but interlocked projectors, the 3-D elements included a wax museum fire, can-can girls and, most famously, a paddleball-wielding pitchman. Ironically the director, André de Toth, was blind in one eye and unable to experience the 3-D effects.


The Lawnmower Man (1992)

Jeff Fahey, Pierce Brosnan, Jenny Wright
Audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes - 31%
Worldwide box office - £23,031,816

The Lawnmower Man (© Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock)
Some things are probably best left in the real world (© Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock)

Scientist Dr. Lawrence Angelo (future Bond Pierce Brosnan) performs experiments involving intelligence-enhancing drugs and virtual reality on Jobe, a simple-minded gardener (Jeff Fahey). After an accident shuts the programme down, Jobe develops telekinetic powers and enters the mainframe computer, abandoning his body to become a wholly virtual being.

VR influence

Yes, it’s way too long and the effects have dated more than that 2 Unlimited album you used to own, but the Lawnmower Man acts as a time capsule of the early 1990s. VR magazines started to be published around this time, Sega released its VR headset for arcade games in 1991 and Hollywood was using digital effects with stunning degree in the Terminator 2. The Lawnmower Man mirrors this public fascination with this emerging tech by featuring computer-augmented headsets, Jobe’s VR mind experiments and warnings about a VR future. It also contains what’s believed to be the first CG love scene in film history.


Read our interview with Nicole Stenger, who created the first fully immersive movie, Angels, between 1989 and 1992 in the latest special edition magazine from BBC Focus – Virtual Reality: The Complete Guide.

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