University of Sussex
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Virtual corporeality: narrative and spectacle in Hollywood VR cinema

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posted on 2023-06-09, 04:21 authored by Emma Jane Withers
This thesis is an inquiry into the emergence, development and eventual transmutation of the 'virtual reality' (VR) subgenre. I critically intervene in discourse on cinema, digital media, phenomenology and science fiction (SF) to explore how these films refract and enact Hollywood cinema‘s engagement with digital media and imaging technologies. Given that these films are about bodily immersive mediated experiences, I argue, their reflexive displays of special effects technologies are far from anti- or contra-narrative, as certain analyses imply. My emphasis on the imbrication of narrative and spectacle motivates a critical questioning of further, often interrelated and mutually sustaining dichotomies between body and mind, cognition and affect, cinema and digital media, real and virtual, reflection and immersion. Via close textual analysis with a phenomenological leaning, I explore how these films variously disrupt such binaries. As both old and new media produce and address differently mediated publics, they adopt, adapt and assimilate the narrative-aesthetic modalities of other (digital) media, negotiating their impacts upon our phenomenological relations to the world and to cinema. Through reflexive allusions to their increasingly mediated extradiegetic contexts, they function to uphold cinema‘s ability both to present innovative technological spectacle and to represent contemporary experiential realities. I explore how earlier VR films Tron and The Lawnmower Man aesthetically and conceptually 'map' VR, and how Strange Days and The Matrix ambivalently explore the implications of intensified and widespread virtual experience in radically different ways. I characterise Avatar and Source Code as 'Post-VR' cinema, in which formerly upheld dichotomies – particularly between 'real' and 'virtual' – prove untenably anachronistic. I ultimately maintain the value of an approach to popular cinema which apprehends genre, context and convergence, while advocating sustained and detailed close analysis as a means of grasping cinema‘s narrative-aesthetic functions in the digital age.


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  • doctoral

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  • eng


University of Sussex

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