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Our favorite films and VR experiences at Sundance 2021

Engadget Staff
·7-min read

Here’s what we’ve learned from covering the 2021 Sundance: Virtual film festivals can be awkward, but it’s still an absolute rush to get an early look at some of the year’s most interesting films. And unlike most other film events, Sundance also invested heavily in virtual reality, giving anyone with a VR headset the ability to chat with other attendees in virtual space. And yes, you can bet we sat (and suffered) through plenty of VR experiences too. There was so much going on it’s almost all we talked about on this week’s podcast. Below, check out a collection of the most notable movies and experiences we encountered at the show.

Tinker

Tinker VR
Tinker VR

In 45 minutes, the VR theater experience Tinker showed me what it’s like to have a loved one who struggles with Alzheimer’s. After putting on my Oculus Quest 2, I stepped into the role of a grandchild to a kindly grandfather, played by improvisational actor Randy Dixon. We talked a bit about my own life experiences, and then we were transported to a virtual tinker shop, where I was shrunk down to the size of a toddler as my virtual grandpa towered above me. I played with toys on the floor like my own 2-year-old, and looked with wonder as grandpa explained the mysteries of the world.

With the passing of every scene, I got a bit older, he got a bit slower, and the room evolved to suit our growing interests. The simple toys were replaced by an RC car and serious electronics gear. I could chart our relationship with the map on the wall, which listed everywhere we’d traveled throughout the US. The entire experience was a bit disconcerting at first, especially since there was an audience watching our performance, and I assumed judging my viability as a virtual grandchild.

As I neared 18 in the game, I could tell grandpa was having some issues with his memory. And by the time I visited in my 20s, he had to small notes posted throughout the office to remind him of the most basic tasks. He started to forget our trips and things we had chatted about in earlier scenes. And my heart sank as I realized our roles were swapping a bit — I had to help grandpa find his pills and play his voicemail messages.

Thankfully, director Lou Ward spared me any dramatic Pixar ending. But as we said our goodbyes in the virtual attic, I couldn’t help but feel like I was leaving someone I knew for more than just a few minutes. That’s a testament to Dixon’s skill as an actor, but also of how VR has the ability to completely transform us. Had I done a similar experience in live action, without the changing height perspective and the quick scene changes possible with virtual reality, I probably wouldn’t have been affected so much. — Devindra Hardawar

We’re All Going to the World’s Fair

We're All Going to the World's Fair
We're All Going to the World's Fair

We’re All Going to the World’s Fair sets itself up like a horror film. The first 10 minutes are a slow, deliberate run through a series of horror movie tropes -- ritual bloodletting, a creepy mantra, a mysterious video -- all of which are supposed to grant access to some sort of horror ARG. A young girl stares down the barrel of a webcam as she does these things in the dim silence of a child’s bedroom. Her bedroom. It’s unsettling. (I actually physically recoiled from the screen.)

The “World’s Fair Challenge” which lead character Casey is partaking in is a sort of creepypasta run amok. People are supposed to do the routine she runs through at the top of the film and then report their symptoms as whatever evil power they’ve unleashed changes their bodies. (One person turns to plastic, another hallucinates playing Tetris in his stomach.)

Surprise: the changes in question are a metaphor for puberty.

World’s Fair is primarily a coming of age story about an isolated and lonely young girl. She lives with a father she barely speaks to (and we never see on screen), is never shown interacting with kids her own age and who, in a desperate attempt to connect with someone -- anyone, constantly uploads videos of herself to the internet (which get at most a few dozen views). It’s these self shot clips that are our primary view into Casey’s life. It not only pushes the plot forward, but it also provides broader context about the World’s Fair Challenge. (Though, not always to the film’s benefit.)

What’s striking is that, unlike most other coming age films, World’s Fair isn’t about Casey’s sexual awakening. In fact, the movie goes out of its way to avoid sexualizing her. Instead it’s about her internal struggles with identity and belonging.

The only other character you get to know is a mysterious man known as JLB who reaches out to Casey because he’s concerned that the World’s Fair Challenge has put her in danger. As the relationship between Casey and JLB evolves, many of the more traditional horror elements start to fade into the background. His true motives are never explicitly stated, but the obvious grooming techniques he employs suggest they’re not noble.

In fact, the movie generally avoids too many concrete answers. And that ambiguity is a strength. Is Casey really experiencing the symptoms she claims to in the film? Are the clips of other people who have taken the challenge to suggest it’s real? Even the end of the film is largely ambiguous.

We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is charmingly rough around the edges. There’s no steadicam footage or dollies. It is true independent cinema done on a shoestring budget. It’s carried by the strength of its ideas, the performances, the excellent soundtrack by Alex G, and its innovative use of well-worn horror and internet tropes. — Terrence O’Brien

4 Feet High VR

4 Feet High VR
4 Feet High VR

VR and immersive video has often been seen as a particularly effective medium for learning about unique perspectives. When you’re placed in the position of someone different from yourself and experience the world from their POV, you’re able to learn so much more about the difficulties they encounter. But often filmmakers who create 360-degree video tend to focus more on the medium itself rather than the story.

Unfortunately, that was my experience with 4 Feet High VR. I was drawn to the project, which promised to be an insightful look at the life of a young wheelchair-user Juana as she explores her sexuality. It’s an important subject and a topic that too often people shy away from discussing. Though 4 Feet High was at heart an illuminating look at Juana’s life and journey, I had to fight a lot of distractions to focus on the story. One scene in particular had me struggling to keep up with the conversation because I had to keep spinning around to read the subtitles next to each character’s head.

I wasn’t even watching scenes unfold from Juana’s perspective for this scene, so the fact that I had to keep looking around had little to do with imbuing the viewer with a sense of sympathy and more a technological flex that detracted from the story.

Sadly, despite its impressive quality (the video is smooth and high-res, great) and technological ability, 4 Feet High ultimately doesn’t fulfil its potential. I understand the temptation to make full use of a medium like 360-degree video, but I wish storytellers would focus on telling a story instead of just dressing it up. — Cherlynn Low