Malick is the latest legendary director to try 360-degree storytelling, but maybe it's time to stop thinking about VR in context of cinema.
The Tribeca Film Festival again did a top-notch job in programming their Immersive section, with an impressive collection of premieres along with a well-curated collection of some of the best boundary-pushing work in virtual reality, augmented reality, and immersive installations. Nonetheless, for a movie fan wanting to carve out a couple hours to keep abreast of the new technology, a lineup like Tribeca’s can be overwhelming. It’s natural to gravitate toward a VR experience by Terrence Malick — a familiar director with an well-established two-dimensional visual language, who might help a viewer decode an unfamiliar 360-degree story world.
From a two-dimensional perspective, Malick’s “Together” is similar to a modern-dance performance. For this six-minute 360 degree VR experience, Facebook teamed the legendary director with Movement Art Is co-founders Jon Boogz and Lil Buck. In “Together,” the two dancers perform in an open black space, their stage defined by flowing white sheets that serve as screens for projected images of nature, light and the cosmic — familiar glimpses of a two-dimensional, Malick-like movie.
However, it’s the two-person dance that takes center stage, in an “emotional narrative about breaking down barriers and bringing people closer.” That festival catalog description conjures Malickian images of his floating camera catching fleeting moments of human interaction and movement. It also poses an intriguing question, and some false expectations: How will Malick’s distinct cinematography translate into 360, and capture the human intimacy that Boogz and Buck express in movement?
The answer: It doesn’t. As a VR rookie, Malick becomes an undergrad film major making his first short as he feels his way through the basics of visual language. Accompanied by top cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, you can feel Malick trying to figure out how to move the camera, or if it’s possible to cut and reframe. As a result, Malick’s ephemeral visual style only comes from the two-dimensional images projected on the backdrop.
That’s not a bad thing; Malick got out of the way of the performers, and took a cautious approach. However, at times the piece’s flow is interrupted by small missteps of how to stage dancers in 360 and in spatial relationship to the camera, which seems to be a struggle for many VR creators.
Watching VR in 2018 is still very similar to watching the earliest silent short films, when the early-cinema pioneers hadn’t yet worked out how to use the new medium. Which is exciting, but as movie fans we need to stop thinking about VR in context of cinema. VR is a completely different medium than filmmaking, which controls where an audience looks and shapes how they will react. VR/AR and movies aren’t even the same species, and it’s more than likely that movie or TV-like story experiences will end up being only a small portion of how the technology ends up being integrated into our daily lives.
It’s great that Malick tried his hand at VR, and I recommend trying to see it, but immersive storytelling is not an extension, or natural evolution, of movies. It’s a medium that the smartest people and decision makers in Silicon Valley can’t reasonably tell you what it will even be (let alone look like) in five to 10 years — except that it won’t be a more immersive “Tree of Life.”