Cinequest festival showcases VR successes and failures

The Humanity Bureau/Courtesy

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The movie theater of the future does not have a traditional screen — in fact, if the future of virtual reality cinema has its way, all you will really need to experience the latest action thriller or romantic comedy are a VR headset and a swivel chair.

Last week, Cinequest Film & VR Festival featured an impressive range of short films developed using the tools of VR, demonstrating the intersection between the Silicon Valley’s penchant for technological advancements and the film industry’s hankering for new methods of storytelling.

From animated shorts to empowering documentary films, Cinequest’s VR film lineup proved that VR is not just for the video game industry — the uniqueness of the immersive, 360-degree approach of VR is first and foremost a new medium for visual narratives, especially film.

For instance, Adam Cosco’s psychological thriller “Knives” was one of Cinequest’s standout films. A black-and-white short, the film uses VR to enhance the viewer’s experience as it tells the story of an angry housewife’s interaction with a traveling knife salesman after learning of her husband’s stint with infidelity.

Shot mainly in close-quarters scenes and shifting between first- and third-person points of view, “Knives” uses the 360-degree capabilities of VR to add a twist to the traditional suspense of a thriller — Cosco directs the viewer’s gaze to scan each scene of the film and to choose where to focus their attention. The viewer is limited in what they can observe at once, offering a truly unique and, at times, unsettling cinematic experience.

Yet other VR films in Cinequest’s lineup failed to fully leverage their VR capabilities. Set in the not-so-distant future, Stevo Chang’s “Revoked” narrates the story of a young woman fleeing to Canada after the U.S. government orders the capture of all individuals of Iranian heritage in order to prevent terrorism. Though timely and thought-provoking in its subject matter, “Revoked” presents an overly simplified and predictable plot worsened further by the film’s VR approach. The film allows the viewer to interact with the story and make decisions that affect the protagonist’s fate, but its use of VR feels unnecessary at best.

Similarly, Rob King’s upcoming dystopian thriller “The Humanity Bureau” features Nicolas Cage as the mysterious Agent Kross, who investigates the dealings of the U.S. government in a future where unproductive members of society are exiled. Complete with an eye patch-wearing villain (Hugh Dillon) and designated damsel in distress (Sarah Lind), “The Humanity Bureau” plays out like a cheesy sci-fi dystopian disaster that makes absolutely no use of its VR capabilities. Apart from a few aerial shots of Midwestern plains, the film largely ignores its 360-degree filming and feels like a gimmicky attempt at VR gone wrong.

But the most impactful film featured at Cinequest’s VR showcase strayed far from the aerial shots and special effects that are often associated with augmented reality and VR. Only nine minutes long, Cassandra Herrman and Lauren Mucciolo’s film “After Solitary” follows the true story of former convict Kenny Moore, whose aggravated assault, burglary and theft charges resulted in a harrowing experience of solitary confinement in prison.

Using the 360-degree capabilities of VR as a narrative tool, Herrman and Mucciolo transport the viewer into Moore’s claustrophobic prison cell, recreating his experience of confinement for the viewer to experience. “After Solitary” manages to use VR to add depth to its story, allowing the viewer to observe and investigate every inch of Moore’s cell. The viewer listens to his firsthand account of the PTSD and depression he suffers from as a result of his solitary confinement.

Standing in the middle of Moore’s prison cell, the viewer gets closer than most to actually experiencing the horrors of confinement and understanding the profound impact it has on former inmates like Moore — a feat that few documentaries or news reports accomplish.

Though still in the early stages of its mainstream development, VR cinema, as showcased by Cinequest’s featured filmmakers, is poised to be the next innovation in immersive storytelling beyond the traditional film experience. Yet as VR develops across film genres, the industry itself will need to actively prevent the saturation of VR technology, much like that of 3-D films. Even the most stunning display of VR technology cannot save a terrible Nicolas Cage film.

Contact Manisha Ummadi at [email protected].

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