The first feature doc to be shot entirely inside the world of social VR is a rich, uplifting experience.
Devised and shot entirely in lockdown, Joe Hunting’s film is a unique proposition that reflects a generational anxiety both in our pandemic present and our future.
Told via a lively collage of stories, it simultaneously follows an American sign-language teacher and a pair of long-distance couples who meet in VR, all presented via their own avatars. But Hunting’s feature-length debut manages to quickly shed the trappings of its tech-heavy format as the real, human stories punch through.
Themes of identity, gender expression, mental health and deafness are explored in an authentic and inclusive way as the characters navigate their way through their VR experiences. Not surprisingly, the format allows them to be whomever they wish. They can (and do) flip elements of themselves at will. Life within the world of VRChat feels secure and liberating – and a lot of fun.
The film builds nicely, too, kicking off in a seemingly understated way before heading for dancefloors and end-of-the-year parties. In a pandemic era, such things are precious and worth savouring. The key characters – Jenny, DustBunny and Toaster, and IsYourBoi and DragonHeart – openly discuss and share thoughts on what it means for each of them. It’s refreshing and fascinating as a cultural experiment – a unique observational documentary about human behaviour that couldn’t be more timely.
Hunting, a British filmmaker whose work includes VR shorts and a VR series, clearly knows the world of social VR well. He shot the whole thing using a VRC lens camera so that the viewer will experience the stories within the world of social VR, rather than outside of it. The effect is intriguing, even profound. For anyone not well-versed in the world of social VR – or still wondering what purpose it might serve – Hunting’s film should swiftly address such concerns. It has an infectious style and engaging substance.
Visually, the world feeds off its heightened colour palette, clearly taking its cue from anime. Sonically, there’s a variety of music that heightens the viewer’s experience as we are taken on the characters’ journeys. The emotive responses the viewer experiences are all too real.
Could it be darker, more complex? Certainly. With an emphasis on the positive and a can-do attitude – rather useful in a pandemic, of course – a few shades of black and grey wouldn’t have gone amiss. Within the platform itself, some of the more predictable visual stereotypes of the avatars themselves could also do with tweaking. But these are minor quibbles.
Many have pondered in the physical world about the net results of Zuckerberg’s intent with his metaverse, and it’s inevitable the viewer will come away from an experience like this wondering the same. How exactly will we communicate in the future? Are long-distance exchanges particularly enriched and made all-the-more possible via social VR? Is it essentially a safe place to escape for a more complete feeling of self-expression? Does it run the risk of allowing ourselves to be too self-indulgent for our own good? And will we come to rely on this more and more as our physical world becomes increasingly challenged, damaged and potentially, even untenable?
The film doesn’t claim to have answers for the countless questions one can pose. It does, however, manage to present a seemingly fabricated world in an intensely human way, through the sheer power of character and story. And for that alone, it’s an enjoyable ride that’s worthy of our time. An accomplished, impressive debut.
Published 22 Jan 2022
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