TRIBECA: VR is Immersive Theatre for the Cinema Set

I don't know about y'all, but when I think of Virtual Reality, I'll never not think about the earliest days of the tech. And no, I'm not talking about the early days of Oculus, I'm talking about THIS SHIT RIGHT HERE:

Back when the limit of the sky was  The Lawnmower Man

Back when the limit of the sky was The Lawnmower Man

I'd argue that this is what most 30 year old millenials STILL think about when they hear the words VR. Virtual reality has always had a shroud of mystery to it, a kind of future technology science fiction fans always dreamt of but were never sure if they would actually get. That is, until just a few years back when the Oculus broke onto the scene, became a must have consumer product which ultimately has led to a VR Arms Race between Oculus, HTC Vive, and Playstation VR (among others).

Which one is better? I don't have a fucking clue, I'm not a tech writer, but what I do know are the ends and outs of storytelling. While VR will never replace film or theatre, it is the most exciting thing to happen to entertainment in thirty years.

Why though? What makes it such a logical step forward? It's simple:

People want to feel active in their entertainment today. They want to not only discuss and dissect the works they love, but many times they want to feel part of the show. Perhaps not the center of attention, but they want to be immersed in the action. This couldn't be more actualized in the cottage industry that is Immersive Theatre. While theatre artists had been toiling in the immersive world for years, creating shows that invite the audience to actively break the fourth wall and build a new one with them on the inside. Once Sleep No More, a sexy immersive re-telling of Macbeth, became the hottest ticket in town the public jumped on the bandwagon. Now we have Escape Rooms in every city, film festivals are including immersive events in their programming, and you really can't look into a Playbill without seeing the descriptor "immersive" tacked on to any number of shows.

But film people can be snobby about theatre just like theatre people can be snobby about film, and frankly film fans are just less likely to be enticed by live immersive theatre. They don't like the idea of "actors coming into the audience", which is where VR comes in. Like Immersive Theatre, virtual reality sets you into the action of whatever you are watching, shaking you from your passivity while retaining enough of a buffer for any social anxieties to flair up. My first taste of VR came at Tribeca Film Festival for a programming block called "It's Right Behind You!" which featured:

  • The Caretaker - Dir. Nicolas Pesce
  • An Obituary - Dir. Jean Yoon
  • Campfire Creepers: The Skull of Sam - Dir. Alexandre Aja

The stories are simple. In The Caretaker, we see a young couple check in to a hotel for what we can presume is a honeymoon or a getaway. But from the get-go, the wife is hesitant.  I mean the hotel just REEKS of creepy. And as her husband goes to settle a credit card issue at the front desk, shit just gets even more strange. Nicolas Pesce has already proven his adept eye at the strange and macabre in The Eyes of My Mother and here he makes us active observers in the film. In VR you will be looking around. EVERYWHERE. The program being called Cinema360 is no understatement. Sitting in swivel chairs we have to physically move ourselves to see everything happening, our heads ricocheting back and forth like a kid looking up between two parents. It's a fascinating effect, especially since this is a film and not a video game. With a game, you know you can't be passive, otherwise Ganondorf is gonna fuck up Hyrule. But with a VR film, if you are a passive audience, you'll miss the story. If you statically look forward, you are bound to missing something fun behind you or vice versa. You have to actively be engaged because the grand illusions it that you're there. We've all seen films where the lead hears something spooky off screen just to slowly turn and see a wild monster over their shoulder. In a VR film, it's your shoulder you are looking over to stare down a demon deer charging at you. It's a thrilling experience.

An Obituary has us following a young man as he ventures into the dense forest to pay his respects for a colleague who has passed away, but as he does he discovers that there may be something more sinister lurking near him. While not as technically proficient as The Caretaker, what this short does provide to us is that VR has legs even when the film isn't under the guise of art. Shlocky and funny horror are at home with VR too. If An Obituary taught me anything, it's that when Lloyd Kaufman and Troma get their toxie hands on this out y'all, because it's going to be a RIOT.

Campfire Creepers is arguably the most polished of the three entries, being the first in a series that Aja plans to bring to your home VR sets. I was not able to catch the most recent, Midnight March, but I did catch up on their first entry The Skull of Sam which features genre heavyweight Robert Englund. What works the best in Campfire Creepers is that Aja gives us a mix of eye-popping VR gags, from being inside a skull, to having ants on your face, to my personal favorite: realizing what it's like to literally be the campfire in a campfire story. All of this just feels so reminiscent of early 3D when everything inexplicably was being thrown at the camera. Just like 3D, VR seems to be also tailored made for the horror crowd. Most of all though Campfire Creepers is the modern day equivalent of Are You Afraid of the Dark, funny and spooky tales that are equally lighthearted and macabre that is perfect for the whole thrill seeking family. 

Virtual Reality, I forsee, will be accepted by the theatre crowd more eagerly than film fans because those accustomed to going to see live theatre will be more accustomed to feeling like an active participant within a story. In theatre, the action can play all around you, not just statically in front of you on a screen. What virtual reality does so well that immersive theatre will never be able to do though is complete immersion. There were many times that I had this strange out of body sensation as I was hundreds of feet in the air over a vast forest looking down and expecting my hands...but seeing nothing. VR is an otherworldly experience and is the most exciting part of the future of cinema.