Would you watch a virtual-reality Casablanca?
The question is ridiculous, but usefully so. VR will never be like the movies, culturally or aesthetically, and the best way to understand why may be to imagine you’re experiencing the 1942 Warner Brothers classic not as a linear story viewed from a theater seat, but as an immersive world accessed by a digital headset.
Most of us would never leave Rick’s Café Américain. We’d go behind the bar with Sascha, hover by Emil the croupier at the roulette table, hang out with Sam as he played “As Time Goes By” again. Me, I’d be following Peter Lorre’s sniveling Ugarte. But the central drama of Rick’s rekindled love and sacrifice for Ilsa Lund? We’d probably never get that far. Director Michael Curtiz and the Warner Brothers elves did such a brilliant job imagining the world of Casablanca that we’d be content to explore it until we bumped up against the walls, like Jim Carrey in The Truman Show.
Similarly, a virtual-reality Citizen Kane might be a survey of the title character’s infinite basement, each talisman sparking its own flashback in no particular order. The Godfather VR Edition might allow us to prowl the haunted house of Don Corleone’s extended family, with the drama of Michael’s slow rise and rot only one small thread amid the warp and weft.
VR will never become the new cinema. Instead, it will be a different thing. But what is that thing? And will audiences trained in passive linear narrative—where scene follows scene like beads on a string, and the string always pulls us forward—appreciate what the thing might be? Or will we only recognize it when the new medium has reached a certain maturity, the way audiences in 1903 sat up at The Great Train Robbery and recognized that, finally, here was a movie?
As a movie critic and a writer who has been covering film over 35 years, I recognize that I’m part of a vast viewership beholden to a media format that has passed its apogee: the roughly two-hour visual experience, usually narrative, projected on a screen for multiple viewers. We live in a time of cultural and technological upheaval, and traditional cinema was the art form of the 20th century. Distribution points are multiplying (TV, computer, phone) while viewing lengths run from binge-watched multi-hour TV episodes to 10-second Snapchats.
Once a technological Holy Grail or the province of science fiction films like Brainstorm (1983), The Lawnmower Man (1992), The Matrix (1999), and Avatar (2009), virtual-reality technology was for years bedeviled by image-rendering glitches and the vertigo that can afflict users trying to navigate a poorly created virtual space. It’s hard to enjoy a fantasy world when you feel you’re about to throw up. But now the future may finally be here. Consumer-ready VR helmets like the Oculus Rift, the Samsung Gear V12, Sony PlayStation VR, and the HTC Vive plunge viewers into immersive 3-D environments where they can move within a storyline or game space without feeling sick. They’re the newest iterations of headsets that have been around for decades (I tested the CyberMaxx helmet for Entertainment Weekly way back in 1994), and they all descend from the first head-mounted display unit developed by computer scientist Ivan Sutherland in 1968, a behemoth so heavy that it was bolted to the ceiling and nicknamed the “Sword of Damocles.”
Meanwhile, content creators—visual artists and game developers, filmmakers and other storytellers—are trying to figure out how it might work. (See an interview with Google’s principal filmmaker for VR, Jessica Brillhart.) Gaming software and networks represent the most fertile and obvious center of development, since exploring and interacting with a fictional reality is the plot of most video games. Other, more narrative virtual-reality experiences, available for purchase or free in the online VR stores that serve as visual entry points once you put on the Rift, the Gear, or the Vive, feel remarkably fresh. They point the way forward toward … something.
Sometimes that something can be startlingly beautiful. The 20-minute Notes on Blindness: Into the Darkness was much praised at the now-annual virtual-reality sidebar at the Sundance Film Festival last year, and it went on to win festival prizes throughout 2016. Based on the diaries of the late John Hull, a British writer and editor who lost his sight at age 45, Notes uses Hull’s recorded voice as guide to an otherworld: a 360° panoramic London park, ink-black except for silhouetted outlines, that is illuminated by each sound we hear. A passing jogger’s feet seem to bioluminesce with every clip-clop; the wind through the trees brings imagined color to branches and leaves. An entire landscape of synesthesia comes into being before our eyes and ears. Yes, it would and does work on a rectangular film or TV screen, but not nearly as convincingly as this immersive inner-yet-outer experience.
Even more striking is Dear Angelica, a highlight of this January’s Sundance VR showcase. Directed by Saschka Unseld and developed in the skunk works of Oculus Story Studio, it’s a memory play told from the point of view of a young woman, voiced by Mae Whitman, as she reminisces about her late mother, a larger-than-life film actress, voiced by Geena Davis. As with Notes on Blindness, there’s no attempt to capture a photographic reality; rather, the artist Wesley Allsbrook has used the Quill VR illustration software, developed at Story Studio, to create a vivid impressionistic flow of color that evolves around, behind, and even beneath a viewer. Dear Angelica does move forward in linear fashion, but it doesn’t tell a story so much as unfold like a poignant train of thought, and you can sense the filmmakers taking baby steps toward a new visual and psychological grammar.
These are beguiling visions, evidence of new ways of expressing human experiences, owing little to other media. Yet there are still stumbling blocks. For one thing, VR hardware is still very clumsy. You have to put on the headset, set up the movement tracking devices, log on to the computer, and avoid tripping over all those cords as you grope blindly about the rec room. It is as if Thomas Edison had told everyone that they needed to rewire their homes and assemble the projectors themselves if they ever wanted to watch a motion picture—and that they then had to put the projector on over their heads.
Most virtual-reality experiences that attempt to combine the narrative forward momentum of film with the immersive exploration of VR end up highlighting the worst of both mediums. Compared with the promise of Notes on Blindness and Dear Angelica, these “entertainments” represent the current reality of virtual reality, and it’s worth talking about what they are and how you experience them.
The experiences are different on different headsets. Google Cardboard, an appealingly low-entry headset, lets you play VR content on an iPhone or Android phone slotted into a cardboard box; it’s the VR equivalent of a Victorian stereoscope or a later generation’s GAF View-Master, and while it’s funky and the visuals can get mighty pixelated, it works. The Oculus Rift, available at electronics outlets for about $600 (hand controls are an additional $200), offers vastly improved visual resolution but requires a PC system with state-of-the-art graphic capability (at least $880) and a decent amount of technical savvy to use. The more recently arrived HTC Vive has all that plus a pair of laser sensors that have to be precisely positioned on your walls so that the user’s movements can be accurately tracked. (The Rift has a similar sensor that stands on a tabletop and looks like a microphone but isn’t.) I didn’t test-drive the Samsung Gear or other headsets for this article.
What are we able to dream while wearing these brave new goggles? In the virtual stores encountered once you put on the headsets—visual malls that seem to hover in space—you can pay for, collect, and access games, apps, social-media platforms, and a lot of what could be termed short VR programming, little of which is terribly interesting. You can watch brief comic skits—YouTube product busted out into 3-D—and travelogues that reinforce the View-Master comparison.
Doug Liman, the director of such Hollywood hits as Swingers (1996) and The Bourne Identity (2002), has produced and co-directed a VR series called Invisible for Jaunt, a VR production company and online store. In five episodes of about six minutes each, a clunky thriller storyline about invisible cousins comes to grief on soap-opera-level acting, dreadful writing, and an aesthetic that still owes much to traditional film. Each time the image cuts to a new angle, viewers have to joltingly reorient themselves in space. Still, a chase scene in Episode 5 shows some initiative in visualizing a 360° dramatic landscape.
Similarly, a short clip, Mr. Robot VR, available on a number of headsets, does little other than put the characters on a Coney Island Ferris wheel and allow the show’s creator, Sam Esmail, to mess around with the new technology. Liman’s Swingers star Jon Favreau—now a major Hollywood director himself (Elf, The Jungle Book)—has a more promising interactive project called Gnomes & Goblins in the works; a preview is currently available exclusively on the Vive.
Remembering Pearl Harbor, produced by Time Life and available on the Vive, lets you access archival historical recordings and material by wandering around and picking things up; it’s well done, but it plays like a CD-ROM the company never got around to releasing in the 1990s. Jaunt also has some sort of deal with Paul McCartney that has resulted in VR concert documentaries (good) and Paul McCartney: Early Days, which simply puts Macca in a room and projects slide photos over his face while he talks about the young Beatles (not so good).
Some VR content houses have thought harder about the medium’s possibilities. Penrose Studios has created two animated shorts for most VR platforms: The Rose and I and the excellent Allumette combine crude stop-motion-style graphics with engaging stories and a genuinely novel vantage point in which the viewer seems to hover in space; the Vive’s motion tracking especially allows you to lean in, peer around, and get up close to the characters.
For the more adventurous, there’s a wealth of what might be called cottage-industry VR on the Internet, made by unaffiliated creators curious to push the boundaries of a new medium. Most of it involves 360° filmmaking, but only some of it is in 3-D, and very little involves motion tracking.
The high point of cottage-industry VR so far may be last year’s Career Opportunities in Organized Crime, which billed itself as the first 360° feature-length VR movie. Directed by virtual-reality enthusiast (and radiologist) Alex Oshmyansky, Career Opportunities is about as crude as they come—it looks like something made in borrowed offices and someone’s garage, and in fact it was. But there’s a story of sorts there, about a Russian mobster with a human resources department and a slacker kid who locates his inner badass. Unfortunately, that’s where the innovation stops. Almost all the dialogue-heavy scenes play out within a typical film screen, with little exploration of the medium’s panoramic possibilities. One appeal of VR drama is its potential for surprise—for things to happen where you least expect them to.
Oshmyansky’s film demonstrates a few things: first, that VR narrative entertainment may live closer to the aesthetics of theater than film (reverse theater-in-the-round, to be exact, with the viewer standing at the center of a 360° radius of action); and second, that a workable language of shots or other means of conveying information and directing audience attention has yet to be discovered. For now, what’s still being sold in most cases is novelty—the fact that you’re watching something supposedly more realistic than anything before—and not the experience itself. But realism shouldn’t be the goal; a compelling immersive environment, whether it’s reality- or fantasy-based, should be.
What’s clear is that we’re just at the beginning of VR’s long gestational period, but the medium is established. The financial backing is there, as is the creative and technological drive to improve the experience. Eventually there will be a project (or two, or three) that will transform virtual reality from a curiosity to a genuine mass-appeal canvas for expression and entertainment. Works like Allumette, Notes on Blindness, and especially Dear Angelica point the way toward what VR might yet become, but it’s almost impossible to describe what that may be. A movie that we seem to live? An adventure that doubles as a world? An immersive head trip, a tour of this and other planets, just another way to numb ourselves with fantasy? We lack words to describe the future because we haven’t invented it yet.
Ty Burr is a film critic for the Boston Globe.