The Martian VR Experience made its debut at CES 2016. And it brings up a host of questions on the relationship between virtual reality and cinema.
Based on Ridley Scott’s sci-fi movie The Martian, the 20 minute VR experience will put you in the shoes of Mark Watney, the astronaut stranded on Mars in the film. Directed by two-time Academy Award winner Rob Stromberg, the eight month-long project was developed by 20th Century Fox, Fox Innovation Lab, RSA Films and The VR Company (Stromberg’s firm).
The Martian VR Experience
Fox won the first Emmy for virtual reality for its VR project on the TV series Sleepy Hollow. The expertise shows and The Martian VR Experience is getting more than a little praise. Using scenes from the film to transition between settings, this is not just an exploration of an alien landscape. You’re part of a story, confronting a challenge.
Recode describes the approach:
Stromberg used scenes from the movie to advance the story, in between interactive segments in which the user playfully tosses potatoes at targets in the crew’s habitat-turned-greenhouse, retrieves a container of buried plutonium to keep warm and pilots a Martian rover.
In one particularly intense activity, the player attempts to retrieve solar panels in a gathering dust storm, as cinematic score and dialogue heighten the tension.
‘That’s what separates gaming from cinema,’ said Stromberg. ‘There’s an emotional quality.’
VR and the future of cinema
What’s unique about The Martin VR Experience is that it’s not simply a marketing vehicle, a VR gimmick to get viewers into theaters. This is an immersive experience that stands on its own, using narrative storytelling based on the film. Marketing still plays a role as Fox sees it as an entertainment product in its own right.
Don’t believe me? Listen to Fox Home Entertainment Worldwide President Mike Dunn:
That was our objective here — to build a piece of content that could be sold.
Seeing what Fox is aiming for makes you think about the future use of VR in cinema. For some time, Hollywood and independent filmmakers have been questioning how virtual reality will impact the art form. Will it replace traditional cinema? Serve as a supplement? Change the length and structure? Upend the theater system (some 39,500 screens at last count in the US)?
No one really knows.
But allow a moment of speculation – what if VR experiences gained equal stature as entertainment products? Or a wild thought – what if traditional cinema became the marketing vehicle for virtual reality experiences? See the film, then go buy the VR version for the full experience of what you saw in the theater or through a download.
Traditional cinema as the summary plotline for the multiple stories you might experience in the VR version.
That may impossible with the current studio arrangement in Hollywood. But I walk through Grand Central Terminal every day, a glorious edifice built for long-distance rail travel. The New York Central Railroad’s cathedral to transportation, one station, cost over $2 billion in today’s dollars and no one could have foreseen the rapid demise of rail travel.
If there’s a lesson here, nothing is permanent.
At the boundaries of the technology
What the ultimate market is for cinematic VR, no one knows. But the future is wide open. Perhaps as wide open as when the Lumière Brothers set up shop in the Grand Cafe on Paris’ Boulevard de Capucines. Did they know what they were doing? No, but they pressed forward just as creatives are doing now in virtual reality.
Stromberg noted that every time Oculus did a software update, it broke what they had built. You’re working at the boundaries of the technology:
It’s like painting in a hurricane . . . . Every day you’re pushing with technology that isn’t quite there.
Fox is demonstrating that there’s an entirely new way to tell stories. The Martian VR Experience is only the beginning of what’s to come as virtual reality works its way into our mindset.
Stepping inside the screen
Ted Gagliano, president of post-production at 20th Century Fox and a developer on the project sees the writing on the wall:
A movie’s no longer just a movie anymore . . . If you fall in love with the movie and want to be a part of the movie and go inside of the movie, the idea is we create experiences that allow you to do that.
Haven’t we always wanted to step inside the screen? And when we couldn’t, those on the screen turned and stepped out to us. From the beginning. As much as was technically possible.
I’m thinking of the famous scene from Edwin S. Porter’s ten-minute masterpiece, The Great Train Robbery (1903). In the finale, the lead bandit played by Justin D. Barnes, stares directly into the camera and repeatedly fires his gun point-blank into the audience.
Utterly captivating, despite the primitive technology.
From the very beginning of filmmaking, we wanted to experience what we saw. Not real bullets, of course, but the sensation of being fired upon by a train robber. Or stranded on the desolate landscape of an alien planet. Alone, with nothing but some potatoes in a raging dust storm, 140 million miles from home. Confronting the fragility of our existence and the strength of the human spirit.
Virtual Reality will take us there.
Emory Craig is a writer, speaker, and VR consultant with extensive experience in art, new media, and higher education. He speaks at global conferences on innovation, education, and ethical technology in the future. He has published widely and worked with the US Agency for International Development, the United Nations, and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Living at the intersection of learning, games, and immersive storytelling, he is fascinated by AI-based avatars, digital twins, and the ethical implications of blurring the boundaries between the real and the virtual.