Nerding Day: Virtuosity 🌭

There was a string of films in the ’90s that painted a very specific picture of the near future – 90s Futurism, we’ll call it. Or, in layman’s terms, The Promise of Timecop. The Timecop Promise swore we’d gallop into the next decade on the backs of Prodigy vocalists cloned by The Sixth Day technology, wearing clothes Marilyn Manson lost in a move. We’d all have haircuts the 1980s were simply too cowardly to embrace. Every gun would look like it was stolen from a Virtua Cop machine, and every bladed weapon would be electrified. Physical media would not only continue to exist but would mutate into some indecipherable geometric riddle designed to flunk mentally unstable applicants from a bus driver’s exam. Or everything would just be Sony MiniDiscs. And virtual reality would be so lifelike you’d TimeCream your jeans.

The 1995 cultural flashpoint Virtuosity possesses all these elements: techno music and chunky handguns complimenting optimistic predictions of the evolution of physical media and an obsession with virtual reality. Virtuosity was by no means the first ‘90s Futurism film, nor the most commercially successful, nor the most significant. But it is my favorite ‘90s Futurism film, and therefore the best, because it features Russell Crowe wearing a series of fanciful suits in the colors of his favorite Ninja Turtles. 

If you’ve never seen Virtuosity, please check the URL in your browser, because you have mistakenly arrived at the wrong website. But in case you need a refresher, here’s the basic story: It is the year 1999, and also the future. Because we cannot stop giving the LAPD a multi-billion-dollar budget, the police are at the forefront of technological innovation. They’re like Elon Musk if he sucked even harder but the stuff he made actually worked. The cops have designed state-of-the-art virtual reality systems and an entire subdivision dedicated to perfecting Artificial Intelligence, which they created at some point but don’t like to make a big deal out of it. They also have a lab where synthetic human clones can be hatched from eggs. 

The LAPD has conquered death, is what I’m getting at, and the Queen of the Police, Louise Fletcher, drives around on an electric cart with her business slave, William Fichtner, to supervise all the exciting new CopTek.

For some reason, the cops are using their powerful VR system to run “training simulators” for new recruits, because their real-life training of six months of community college and an obstacle course was deemed too dangerous. Presumably too many cadets were rolling their ankles during the tire hop or accidently stabbing their pencils into their eyes during particularly challenging written exams. To protect future officers from this embarrassment, recruits are strapped into Lawnmower Man chairs and immersed in photorealistic virtual worlds designed to teach them how to be more effective threats to public safety. 

Because this is the futuristic world of 1999 as envisioned by screenwriters in 1995 whose understanding of VR was limited to whatever they could glean by spying on children at Software Etc., the training simulators are exactly as sophisticated as a Mega Man II stage – trainees must chase down a Robot Lord and fire as many virtual bullets into his virtual body as they can squeeze out of their virtual guns. The Robot Lord in question is one of the police department’s hyper-advanced A.I.s — an entity called SID 6.7. 

SID is a composite of the personalities of 200 serial killers and also Hitler, a cocktail diluted by so much slobbering crazy that it loses all nuance. The simulator might as well be tasking recruits to protect citizens from a runaway boulder. SID is the training partner equivalent of letting a 6-year-old make you dinner – it sounds like a fun idea, but all you’re left with is colorful diarrhea and a solemn vow to never trust again. Matching wits with SID will provide trainees with the experience they need to hunt down a rampaging baboon, but little else in terms of functional detective skills. Maybe baboons are a big problem in the futuristic world of 1999, but the movie is unclear on this point.

SID 6.7 is played by Russell Crowe with the reckless abandon of a child who has just murdered his babysitter and can eat as much ice cream and thumb tacks as he pleases. Crowe approaches the role like he is trying to see how much he can get away with on a scene-by-scene basis until a crewmember wrestles him to the ground so the building can be evacuated. His performance is that of a man trying to conjure a felony drug conviction. If Joaquin Phoenix had won his Joker Oscar in 1995, Russell Crowe as SID 6.7 would’ve run onstage and swallowed him whole. SID is the answer to the age-old question, “What if I hired Max Headroom to murder my parents and paid him in truck stop cocaine?” He is so dangerous that the cops are using convicts to test out the training simulator until they can figure out how to keep SID in line.

Disgraced former detective, Parker Barnes, in prison for shooting a camera crew who jumped in front of him like scare actors at a haunted house during an intense gunfight in a hive of terrorists, is the only convict to have ever outsmarted SID. At least, that’s what we are told. The extent to which he “outsmarts” SID appears to be “he correctly identifies SID as the only white person in a room full of Japanese businessmen.” 

Parker is played by Denzel Washington, and that will never stop fascinating me. Denzel is one of the finest actors of any generation, and you would simply never know it by glancing at his filmography. He loves schlock. Schlock like Virtuosity, and the world is a better place for it. Parker also has a fully functional cyborg arm, as befitting the futuristic world of 1999.

SID figures out how to murder a guy in virtual reality, so the Queen of Police orders that he be shut down. But SID’s sociopathic creator, Darryl, decides to set SID free instead. Darryl is a man with a frighteningly angular skull who has unquestionably written several Gab posts about involuntary celibacy. Darryl has lost more than one friendship over Magic: The Gathering. He rants about “historical inaccuracy” from behind an anime avatar whenever black people or women show up in video games. 

Darryl births SID from one of the synthetic clone eggs we discussed earlier, and SID begins murdering his way through the futuristic world of 1999 Los Angeles like the Hamburglar after shooting Officer Big Mac during a cheeseburger heist and deciding he has nothing left to lose. The police have no choice but to spring Parker from jail to hunt SID down, because none of their training has prepared them to handle SID (see “runaway boulder,” above).

Parker and SID have a series of action-packed future adventures, including a futuristic car chase, a futuristic UFC fight, and a futuristic child abduction. SID collects a number of outfits, most notably a purple suit presumably donated to the production by Bill Bellamy. 

Their game of future cat and timemouse culminates in a skyscraper fist fight and a battle of wits to defuse a bomb before it detonates Kaley Cuoco. Parker rips SID’s twinkly electronic brain cube out of his meaty android skull and smashes it beneath a moving vehicle as Lords of Acid launch us into the end credits on a stereophonic bullet train of techno.

Virtuosity is a movie that takes place in a version of 1999 that I cannot stop thinking about. Not merely because it didn’t come true, but because it never could have come true. The movie was released in 1995, which means the ‘90s Future it was predicting was only four years away. That’s a single presidential administration. That’s the length of time between two Batman sequels. We can’t even reliably predict if a highway offramp will finish construction in that amount of time. Virtuosity makes the unfulfillable promises of an alcoholic who slept through Christmas. Virtuosity is a more embarrassing called shot than the time Babe Ruth pointed his bat to the heavens and confidently declared, “I’m going to take an uncomfortable shit on every star in this galaxy,” only to tragically die before space travel was invented. There was simply no way we could have ever reached the heights Virtuosity dared us to achieve in the amount of time it demanded we reach them.

In the interest of the public good, and because the only other way I can organize my thoughts about the film is in a stack of feverishly handwritten notebooks like Kevin Spacey in Se7en (and presumably like Kevin Spacey in real life), I will now chronicle my favorite ‘90s Futurism moments in Virtuosity. 

The cops all dress in skin tight vinyl uniforms, like Goth Nazis. They look like inappropriately sexual furniture at a daycare center. They’re dressed like they exclusively police the splash zone at a Golden Corral. They’re dressed like personal trainers at Meatloaf’s sexnasium. Also, Parker’s partner Donovan is the evil cop from the SAW movies. I’m not sure what that means, but I am certain it means something.

When they’re inside the simulation, Parker tracks down SID by noticing a smiley face emoticon above a sushi restaurant. This is meant to be a training simulator for police officers, but the clue to discovering SID’s whereabouts is completely unrelated to police work. It’s a trivia question about ‘90s Internet culture, and it’s a trivia question for children. I can only assume this means that detective work in the future is indistinguishable from Celebrity Jeopardy.

Related to that point, Parker says something to Donovan about being on the lookout for SID’s distinct eyes as they enter the sushi bar. But SID is “hiding out” in the restaurant by being the only Russell Crowe wearing a Kelly green suit in a sea of Japanese people. 

Both of those characteristics are going to leap out at me like an escaped jungle cat before I even get around to noticing his eyes. Again, it cannot be overstated how little anyone could learn about police work from this simulation. I suspect Police Queen Louise Fletcher had been looking for an excuse to pull the plug on the VR simulation program long before SID figured out how to kill people in it. It’s comforting to know that the 1999 of the Future still has all the same problems with incredibly shitty software nobody wants to admit is bad. 

There’s a big ol’ TitanTron viewscreen in the police station broadcasting the simulation so the whole department can watch along. When Parker and Donovan get pulled out of the simulation, the view on the screen dramatically zooms out of SID’s world like a Brian De Palma shot.

This means that the police took the time to program artistic camera angles to make the simulation more interesting for everyone to watch. Also, after SID electrocutes him to death in the simulation, Donovan stays strapped in his future chair convulsing like a werewolf transformation for at least two minutes before anyone thought to unplug him. We know they could’ve pulled Donovan out at any time, because they pull Parker out right before SID smirk-chokes him to death like a haunted puppet. So that room full of stuffed-shirt bureaucrats was just staring at Donovan as the man loudly expired. Just the noisiest, most distracting death imaginable outside of an elevator collapse. The Future Police are either far too professional to interrupt their notetaking to get Donovan out of the simulation, or the simulation is powered by human souls.

Okay, one last thing about the simulation – the Queen of Police notes with some dismay that “virtual reality was supposed to be a safe place to train my law enforcement people” after Donovan strokes out on a gurney. Once again, I must question what scenario this training sim was meant to prepare anyone for. A shootout with an indestructible night club manager? Is that a common beat for cops of the future? Given the evidence Virtuosity provides us, I can arrive at no other conclusion. 

Also, SID possesses the combined instincts of 200 serial killers and mass murderers, and he uses this knowledge to shoot up a restaurant during lunch. Just like Hitler would’ve done.

Prisons in the distant farscape of 1999 are almost entirely automated. Also, each cell is a backlit white cube, like the prisoners are a bunch of background dancers at the VMAs.

Parker is attacked on his way back to his cell, but he deftly uses his cyborg arm to defend himself. We have solved the problem of lost limbs in this future, but we’re still pursuing VR technology like it is the crudely polygonal road to Valhalla. ‘90s Futurism was inexplicably enamored of VR, which if you recall was a technology that fully existed in 1995, only with disturbingly shitty graphics. I want to see a ’90s future movie where VR is no less a fundamental part of everyday life, but the technology stopped at the Virtual Boy.

Darryl speaks openly to SID on the sim-room TitanTron about his secret plan to break SID out of the simulation and set him loose in the real world. 

There are people working behind him in the background. Everyone can hear their conversation. SID is a program; surely this conversation could’ve been conducted via text. But we didn’t have text messages back in the ‘90s Future, because there is nothing bodaciously futuristic about text.

Darryl has also built a sex chess A.I. named Sheila on the same official police training system as SID, and nobody has alerted the media about this. 

As was similarly foretold in Timecop, futuristic sex pests just fuck their computers whenever and wherever the mood strikes them. Throwing on a visor and shooting ropes to techno music is a totally acceptable way to spend your lunch break in the office of the future. But perhaps Sheila is also being developed for training purposes. If that’s the case, is she supposed to teach cops how to play chess or how to satisfy their partners? Because they don’t seem to have much use for either lesson.

Weird cubes are the preferred media format in the Bradburyian futuretopia of 1999. They look like LED yo-yos at the Air and Space Museum gift shop. 

Hands down my favorite aspect of ‘90s Futurism is the unhinged versions of physical media they invent. For some reason, nobody realized there simply wouldn’t be much physical media in the future. This is especially poignant in Virtuosity, a film about a CD-ROM universe ruled by a digital Russell Crowe.

Also, murderous runaway androids appear to be somewhat old hat in this universe. Nobody bats an eye when SID escapes the computer system. They take it totally in stride. It’s like if the cops found out the Christian devil was real and just sighed “here we go again” and put out an APB.

The first stop on SID’s rampage is a loft techno club, which were big in the ’90s future, and constitute my second favorite aspect of ‘90s Futurism.

Everyone listens to techno in the future ‘90s. Not only does everyone listen to techno, but all music is techno. It’s like La Bouche won the Franchise Wars from Demolition Man. Also, everyone in this 1999 Los Angeles of the future dresses like an off-duty American Gladiator. 

Like every celebrity DJ before him, SID’s first act of public violence is to hijack a programmable turntable and use it to hold a room full of people hostage. 

He steals this turntable from Traci Lords. As with the Donovan/SAW connection, I am powerless to decode this information.

When Parker and his BFF psychotherapist Madison access Darryl’s home computer, we see that it is exclusively voice activated. There’s no keyboard – Parker specifically makes a note of this. I appreciate the accessibility option, and sometimes I want to be able to juggle while I’m doing my work, but this must have made it extremely difficult for Darryl to hatch his nefarious plans if he had to speak every stage of them aloud to his desktop PC. Also, Darryl’s computer took the time to make 3D models of all the murderers in SID’s personality and animate them shooting beams of light out of their mouths to a tiny infant version of SID.

The only reason to do this is because it is objectively hilarious, making Darryl’s home computer my favorite character in the film.

Virtuosity’s version of 1999 is far enough in the future for androids, glass-eating clone bodies hatched from glistening sweaty eggs, and Johnny Cab robot bartenders, but near enough for Ken Shamrock to still be fighting in the UFC at the Olympic Auditorium. 

We have no choice but to believe that Ken Shamrock is an android. To be honest, everything about Ken Shamrock makes much more sense when you consider the possibility that he emerged from a giant egg as a fully formed adult.

SID is listening to a song by Russell Crowe’s band as he drives up to kidnap Kaley Cuoco. So, Russell Crowe exists somewhere separately in this elseworld, and SID is his biggest fan. 

The other possibility is that whomever SID stole the truck from was listening to Russell Crowe, but I reject that explanation. Not in my Virtuosity.

SID brings his own Death TV graphics package with him to the television studio in the film’s finale. He took the time to put that together, as it was an integral part of his plan to capture the imagination of TV viewers everywhere. I assume he made them on Darryl’s home computer using only voice commands. 

When he realizes the heroes have trapped him back in VR at the end of the movie, SID sends Parker to digital Hell, which is a blood red landscape populated by Russell Crowe’s face. 

SID is an A.I. that can be removed from the simulation at will, which means it’s unlikely he would be able to alter the world around him to such a dramatic extent unless Darryl gave him admin privileges, which Darryl would never do, because Darryl has the nefarious gait of a man who despises sharing. His need to be in control is so complete that he prefers to play Dungeons & Dragons alone. His apartment has a single chair in it, because he is allergic to friendship. So, this can only mean the Russell Crowe Hellscape – the Pit of Crowekoon if you will – already existed in the simulation

All roads – virtual or otherwise – lead to Croweface.

4 replies on “Nerding Day: Virtuosity 🌭”

This one kind of gets slotted in my head between Lawnmower Man and Fallen, a thriller Denzel Washington made three years later. In that one, he plays a cop again, but this time hunting down a serial killer who can leap from body to body.

I may disagree with you, sir, on your choice of best 90s Futurism movie, but I will defend to the death your right to make it. I respect the decision because you mark the Sony MiniDisc among the genre’s tropes. This indicates that you’ve at least seen the actual best 90s Futurism movie, Strange Days, and have done your due diligence on the subject.

“The LAPD has conquered death, is what I’m getting at, and the Queen of the Police, Louise Fletcher, drives around on an electric cart with her business slave, William Fichtner, to supervise all the exciting new CopTek.”

I don’t know shit about comedy so I can’t explain why this sentence makes me laugh so much every single time, but I do! I do laugh so much! Thank you for that.

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