Edit: When I originally published this article I was unaware that FaceBook had purchased Oculus some time ago and has been actively developing a virtual reality extension to it’s services. I’ve embedded Zuckerberg’s 2016 demo at the end of the post.
We can all sense that film media is nearing the end of the line. We’ve been sensing it for some time. Major theatrical enterprises are now completely dominated by remakes, sequels, and adaptations from literature (and comics). Story circles are recycled from film to film by screenwriters who are trained to produce a script over a weekend. The outstanding criticism of last year’s major release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) was that it was simply a rehashing of the story from Star Wars: A New Hope (1977). This criticism has turned out to be well warranted as The Guardian reported this week that the first draft for Star Wars: Rogue One (2016) was cobbled together using cinematic clips from other Hollywood films.
It doesn’t end with cinema however: the well of original television content is running dry also, albeit more slowly. The boom of web-based media services that measure viewership by clicks has made it simple to detect and cater to trends in entertainment with laser precision. We are bombarded by television content that, statistically, we should love. Usually we do love it. But we still sense that at its core it is nothing but sheer entertainment that has been created from data mined out of our past preferences.
Of course there are still objectively good films and television shows that are organically birthed and reach deeper than the surface level of action- or feelgood-entertainment. Self-proclaimed prophets have been singing a dirge over literature for what seems like ages, yet literature continues to delight and surprise us. In some small respect true creativity in the art of film media will linger forever, because creativity transcends art forms. But you see what I’m getting at.
And as this has been happening around us, virtual reality has been sneaking up on us. The level of hyper-entertainment it offers seems comparable to the television of Fahrenheit 451, except that film will be to our utopia what literature is to Bradbury’s. We’ve already explored the idea of VR (and by explored I mean “feared, struggled against, and triumphed over”) in films like Tron (1982) and The Matrix (1999). But this was just science fiction: actual VR technology has been pathetic at best for decades until a few years ago it finally became impressive enough to be viable. Then it was developed, crowd-funded, and made selectively available. Now, at long last, it is commercially available and our dreams are on the verge of realization.
Whether we accept it or not, we are on the precipice of a new era of media, having not even mastered much less understood our last revolution, social media. It was natural for VR to begin in the video game industry. In many ways, video games have realized the dream of all storytelling genres: immersing the observer in a new world, making the observer the protagonist of a powerful story with theoretically unlimited chances to succeed. VR brings this dream to the next level, coddling our imagination and senses in ways literature and film have never been able to do.
However we arrived here, we can prepare for VR to invade every area of modern life. The until-now relatively limited genre of first-person film will explode. We’ve seen it begin recently with Hardcore Henry (2015) and the music video to the Weeknd’s “False Alarm.” It won’t all be a visceral celebration of violence and crime, but we are well-prepared to face down many new kinds of Blair Witches in our virtual reality goggles. Even Roger Ebert has begun to consider the ethical consequences of VR for film.
The Virtual Reality narrative experience will extend into the Internet as well. Imagine, living in a virtual FaceBook house rather than have a FaceBook “page.”We will shop on Amazon as if it were a store with real physical space. The desktop and mouse, a metaphor that has enabled billions of technologically unsavvy people to navigate computers for decades, will be dissolved into a perfect metaphor: reality. We will send each other virtual mail and communicate with virtual emojis plastered on our avatars like Sims. Skype and Facetime will be rendered with intense realism, the images projected in high definition into each of our eyes at just the right angles so that we may as well be there in person. But we won’t be, obviously. We will be communicating, purchasing, learning, and projecting ourselves across infinite space instantaneously. Humanity will have finally become, as Freud would say, a prosthetic god.
For skeptics, in whose company I usually count myself, there’s plenty to fear about the VR revolution (which, I will add, is not “coming”… it is here.) However, I am not afraid of this revolution. Here’s why.
First, it will bring a fresh infusion of real creative power, novel-ness, into the shriveling industries of film and television content. It’s easy to understate how important this is if you fail to acknowledge the pervasive influence storytelling has to inform our values and identities.
History shows us that the sublimity of storytelling advances with the media that carries it: a new technology is introduced, artists flop around in it for a little bit like children in clothes a few sizes too large and produce “sensationalist” works that merely demonstrate what it is capable of, then as the novelty wears off other artists come along and perfect the art of tailoring the story to the medium and lift it to sublime heights. These become the real classics of the genre. After that, the structures of these “classics” are belabored by imitators until a new technology is introduced.
The model proves itself again and again from the technologies of Technicolor to side-scrolling video games to free-verse poetry. The real disease in Hollywood is not necessarily creative laziness, it’s that we’ve exhausted every storytelling technology available to us. And filmmakers are aware of it too: the best that can be done is to continue to belabor CGI and produce works of ever greater CGI prowess, to the modest apathy of most audiences. The tired attempt to push 3D glasses onto the noses the world’s filmgoers was another failed attempt to break this barrier. What we’ve been waiting for is an exciting, brand new story-telling technology. Without realizing it, we’ve been waiting for virtual reality.
In our lifetime we will get to see this art form be perfected and the new classics formed just as we are now currently living through that age in video gaming. It seems that we’ve finally met our goddess through virtual entertainment.
This process will change us. We will re-learn what real empathy is by living immersive stories in the first person. We won’t have to “put ourselves in another person’s shoes,” as it were: from the moment we put on the glasses we will literally be the Other. Imagine experiencing Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) as Cameron, or The Red Balloon (1956) as the little boy (or the balloon). The experience of living through a film in the first person will only be credited to the story as strength and to us as empathy.
One thing is for sure, life will never be the same. The revolution is upon us; I say we embrace it. As the consciously deliberating and choosing consumer (the modern version, according to Achille Mbembe, of the Enlightenment’s rational subject capable of deliberation and choice) we have the power to drive this industry in the direction we demand. The final frontier, it turns out, is not outer space: it is virtual space.
Cover art borrowed from the video game “Rise of the Tomb Raider” (2015) developed by Crystal Dynamics and published by Square Enix.