Bad acting, clunky camerawork and overheating headsets … VR’s first feature-length 360-degree movie is no miracle – but the medium might be a blessing
The acting? Dire. The direction? Awful. The adaptation? Conservative and pedestrian. In conventional terms, everything about this new retelling of the Jesus story – showing here in Venice in an abbreviated 40-minute cut – is ropey. It is all too clearly influenced by Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ: the film has the same executive producer, Enzo Sisti and the same religious adviser, Fr William Fulco. But technologically it’s a different story. It’s the first feature film to be presented in complete wraparound 360-degree virtual reality. And it’s a startling, bizarre, often weirdly hilarious experience. With your bulky headset on – it began to overheat during the crucifixion scene, alarmingly – you have the urge to giggle. Not necessarily mocking. You just feel skittish.
The camera position is fixed and so are you. You can’t walk up to people or back away. There is little or no intercutting within scenes. But you can revolve around completely on the spot and look up at the roof/sky or down and even back through your legs to look at people upside down, should you so wish. I was filled with the weird, paranoid urge to turn my back on the main action and check that reality really was carrying on as normal and that the actors weren’t having a cheeky cigarette.
As the wise men presented their gifts to the baby Jesus during the nativity scene, I spin round to be confronted with a large, placidly chewing cow. During the John the Baptist scene, I tuned out to watch some people at the far edge of the water, busily and continuously doing – what? I couldn’t quite see. And during the sermon of the Good Samaritan I found myself watching two actors pretending to fix a cart at the edge of the crowd.
The film works reasonably well in the crucifixion scene, which is conceived on intimate terms with just a small gathering of centurions, believers, etc (though where were Mary and Mary Magdalene?) and there is a reasonably bold Christ’s-eye view shot. Very Mel. Weirdly, there are no close-ups of Jesus, who is kept in respectful medium- and long-shot. But unimportant villagers will get right up in your personal space.
What could not be achieved in VR if you had someone who knew what they were doing? Someone who could see the potential and the limitations and work with them? The producers of the VR Jesus say they’re targeting the 2 billion-plus smartphone users worldwide (you attach your handset into the VR headset gear) and also the 2 billion-plus Christians. It’s a smart initial move. But this is a home entertainment market and I have a feeling that virtual reality is going to be driven by the same thing that drove the internet and VHS in the early years. And that is … erm … not Bible stories.
The screen quality needs work. At present the focus is soft and it often feels like putting your face up close to the TV.
VR is a novelty and perhaps it’s going to be like scratch’n’sniff cards at the movies. Or purely a gaming platform. Or perhaps it will be something more. It needs someone who can respond creatively and originally. At any rate – it’s something new.