Unless your name is James Cameron, you’re probably a little skeptical of the recent surge in virtual reality as a medium for storytelling. (And even he wants you to know that what we tend to call “VR” isn’t true VR to Hollywood’s biggest devotee of technological advancements.) For most people, it’s still a limited platform, both cost- and access-wise; the forms of available VR platforms (Oculus, Steam, Vive, Google Play, PS4, etc.) are growing, but the amount of content waiting to greet those who pony up the hundreds of dollars for the necessary equipment isn’t yet commensurate with the investment. The richest source of entertainment in VR, unsurprisingly, is gaming, where the immersive environment is more useful as both a tool and aesthetic enhancement. Games like Superhot and Moss showcase the best the technology has to offer, making the player’s broad control of perspective an essential aspect of the experience.
But when it comes to cinematic narrative alone, harnessing VR’s potential becomes more challenging. It’s not simply that a large portion of a director’s skill lies in guiding the eyes of the viewer exactly where they’d like them to be, and facilitating the transition from one sight to the next at a pace—and in an order—meant to maximize emotional impact, or illuminate a certain element of the frame for tactical purposes. There’s also the fact that almost no one seems to have figured out how to shoot a VR movie in a way that would compensate for the option to move your head and disrupt even the most rudimentary of compositions—essentially throwing the meticulous art of cinematography out the viewer-controlled window.
As a result, a number of creators of VR stories are splitting the difference between filmmaking and games, essentially turning their short-film experiences into more of a theme-park ride than a piece of cinema. The latest and clearest example of this sort of breezy, cheap-seats entertainment is Robert Rodriguez’s The Limit, a 20-minute virtual reality action spectacle that slams the viewer into an adrenaline-fueled race through three major set pieces in service of a simple sci-fi conceit. The viewer assumes the point of view of a mysterious agent imbued with some unknown cybernetic enhancements, who makes contact with an assassin (Michelle Rodriguez) similarly gifted with digital upgrades. The mission: to fight back against the organization that created your character, and is now trying to shut its experiment down.
“You don’t talk much, huh?” says Rodriguez’s anonymous ass-kicker—an understatement, given that she’s speaking to a literally silent character embodied by the viewer. This lampshading mostly serves to point out the gimmicky nature of the enterprise. The narrative itself is boilerplate sci-fi (secret identities, cyborgs, evil corporations), but the whole thing plays like a 21st-century, first-person Captain EO—or perhaps, more accurately, a condensed and immersive version of Hardcore Henry. Rodriguez’s performance is less character than tour guide, someone to hold your hand from one shootout to the next. (On two separate occasions, she tells you, “Welcome to the limit,” reinforcing the feeling this is all meant to be a ride at Universal Studios, or possibly the cut-scene start of a PSVR game.) And the sequences you go through, stripped of the dross of the story, are undeniably fun VR experiences: riding passenger during a highway shootout (that ends with you flying through the windshield), jumping out of an airplane, taking out a factory of goons until you confront the boss (Norman Reedus) at the end. It’s all about delivering visceral, goosebump-inducing thrills.
But those thrills also point out just how extraneous every other element of the VR technology is here. Not just extraneous, but actively detracting from the experience at times: The meticulous choreography of a fight scene, for example, gets lost if you happen to be looking in the wrong direction. And the potential for motion sickness in VR gets multiplied by having a viewer-controlled point of view actively contradicting a moving camera: Turning your head quickly to the right at the same time that Rodriguez’s camera is whip-panning to the left, completely changing the orientation of your viewing position, will cause instant dizziness. (Smartly, Rodriguez does keep the audience in a virtual theater of sorts, splitting the difference between a movie screen and 360-degree immersion. Start to feel light-headed or faint, and you can simply turn 180 degrees to look behind you, where the action and environment will suddenly disappear, and you’ll see a digital movie theater, projector lit up in the top back wall, grounding your field of vision and compensating for the wobbliness generated by Rodriguez’s camera.)
But, again, The Limit is ultimately more theme-park ride than short film, albeit the kind where you sit in front of a screen and things move around you. Whether in 2D or 3D (the download gives you both options), it’s simply not a story so much as a trick, a gimcrack application of the medium’s possibilities—yet even there, it limits itself to video game-style technique and tactics. Rodriguez uses it as a trick to liven up a very conventionally shot action short, as opposed to filming something meant to be looked at from many different angles. It’s hard to shake the feeling that this is less the future of VR than a glossy reminder of its past.
To get a sense of the future possibilities of virtual reality, it’s better to look to the people pushing the boundaries of the technology. At last year’s SXSW, we took a look at some of the projects in the works, and it was stunning to see the ways artists could twist and manipulate the VR landscape to serve their stories, as opposed to the other way around. The short film “Spheres: Songs Of Spacetime” is an excellent example: It takes you into space and then drops viewers into a black hole, doing its best to represent what that might actually look and sound like, right up to including the viewer’s own voice as amplifications within the film. It doesn’t expect you to look in one place at a certain time, instead using the medium to its full advantage by expecting that you could be looking anywhere at any moment.
Similarly, Dinner Party, a short film that uses a gathering of couples to recount the first recorded alien abduction in U.S. history, finds new and absorbing methods of filming that run counter to conventional techniques. The audience begins suspended hundreds of feet in the air, slowly pulling down on the title event within a house missing a roof. And even when it finally settles inside the room itself, there are multiple discussions and reactions, with no forced perspective or clear “shot” on which you’re meant to focus your attention. The ability to look around, to absorb others’ responses and behaviors without fear or “missing” something, is the whole point. Those expanding the medium’s promise aren’t trying to merely shock the nervous system with an adrenaline rush akin to a rollercoaster ride. They’re attempting to actually rework cinematic narrative and navigation in ways that make sense for someone basically wearing a screen strapped to their head, confined to a few square feet of space.
Virtual reality is currently in a strange transition phase. While PlayStation and others don’t seem to be doing enough to expand the range of products available through their headsets—suggesting a stalling out of the medium’s growth—just this month Nintendo introduced a cheap, mass-market iteration of VR based on Google cardboard, implying a robust consumer market just waiting to be tapped. But once again, that’s going after the games corner of the VR universe. An equivalent vision for cinema, and the intriguing possibilities it affords, is still waiting to be uncovered.