The first reviews of Jesus VR: The Story of Christ — the “virtual reality” movie being previewed in Venice this week — are here. And they’re not very positive.
Peter Bradshaw at The Guardian is fairly scathing:
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. . . .
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.
Twelve years ago I wrote an entire essay on the use of point-of-view shots in Jesus films, so I am intrigued by the thought of a 360° point-of-view shot — where the viewer is put in the same position as Jesus but is free to move their head around and therefore decide which direction Jesus is looking. (If the point-of-view shot comes when Jesus is on the cross, do you see his legs and arms stretched out against the cross if you look down or to the side? Is the viewer free to turn around 180° and look at the wooden beams behind Jesus’ head? If so, then that would be weird.)
Anyway, David Sexton of the Evening Standard also isn’t very impressed:
What we were watching — the first ever screening of Jesus VR, a US-backed film due out in full at Christmas — was merely dire. Selected scenes from the Gospels were amateurishly acted out as if in a village Passion Play, all stripy robes and beards among stony ruins.
The whole you’re-really-there effect is provided by the fact that you can at whim look 360-degrees around and up and down. But why, when it is the story of Jesus, would you want to look anywhere but at him? And what an impudent, voyeuristic impulse to want to feel you were actually there anyway! And how inherently inartistic it is not to have what you see edited and composed for you by a film director!
Agence France Presse has a report, as well:
VENICE – Even having Jesus as its central character could not save a virtual reality biblical epic from the bile of slightly nauseous critics at the Venice film festival. . . .
Shot on location in Matera, the Italian village where Mel Gibson’s violent drama “Passion of the Christ” (2014) was filmed, the experience takes you through the defining moment’s of Christ’s life: his birth in a stable crib, his baptism, the last supper with his apostles and his death by crucifixion.
Except that the technology is still in the teething stages.
So rather than having the sense they are walking alongside Christ, the viewer’s perspective is that of being a spectator standing or sitting near the blandly-portrayed prophet.
“I was hoping you’d have a sense of Jesus as a kind of mystical apparition, something a bit more than a low-quality actor in a robe,” said one disappointed critic. . . .
With the quality of the images no higher than that of a magnified cell-phone screen, even Christ’s agonising death on the cross failed to engage the preview audience.
As it was, viewers found themselves distractedly wondering why they appeared to be sitting on the hut’s cooking fire as Jesus washed feet, or turning round to stare at the extras in case they did something.
“The technology is still in the early stages,” Barder admitted, though he defended the subject choice, saying the majority of people canvassed (in the US) had said Jesus’s life was the period they would most want to be able to visit.
If more reviews come out of the Venice film festival, I will add them to this post.
September 5 update: The Hollywood Reporter has its own story on the preview:
Many viewers reported issues throughout the screening with sound and picture quality, but alternative headsets were on hand to allow for swap-outs. Because the chairs were so close together, spectators often bumped into each other when spinning around, which awkwardly took them out of the VR experience and back into the screening room.
Interest was strong, as long lines out the door were seen at each screening as people on the Lido waited to get a taste of the technology. Reactions to the film in Venice were less than enthusiastic, however. . . .
The producers explained that because they shot in 360 degrees, many of the crew were hidden in plain sight, with everyone from the first [assistant director] to the sound guy wearing costumes. “We saved a lot of money on extras,” joked Sisti.
The Reporter also passes along this video of the screening room:
— Ariston Anderson (@Aristonla) September 1, 2016
September 7 update: Michael Phillips at the Chicago Tribune:
You’re essentially an invisible extra in the Jesus story, from manger birth to crucifixion death, alongside Second Shepherd on the right. In the manger scene, I swung around in my swivel chair and found myself mere inches from a wet-nosed cow.
There is virtually no cutting or camera movement. The images are blurry, as if you’re sitting too close to a 1966 Zenith TV console, the way I used to sit when “Batman” was on. “Jesus VR” may garner some interest among the VR-curious. But without a better, crisper image, filmmaking this rudimentary inspires three little words: not there yet.
During the break, the VR headsets came off for a cool-down and people asked a few questions. Someone wondered about the weirdness of the static visual quality combined with allegedly immersive technology. Director Hansen chewed his fingernails a bit, and then admitted they tried moving the camera now and then, or cutting within a pageant-like tableau, but it didn’t work.
“It took you out of the scene,” he said.
September 10 update: The Regina Leader-Post has a story on the film:
It’s not the Last Supper as the painting depicts.
Jesus Christ is kneeling on the floor, washing the feet of one of his disciples. A dozen other men are seated around the fire-lit room. You can look over at all of them, up at the ceiling and down into the fireplace.
It’s almost like being there, and that was David Hansen’s reason for making his virtual reality film, Jesus VR: The Story of Christ.
“In some ways, VR is as close to time travel as you could get. It really feels like you’re here, you’re looking around, you’re in that moment,” said Hansen, a Regina-based director/producer.
“I was thinking historically, if you could travel back anywhere in time, where would the majority of people want to go? … The No. 1 person they want to meet is Jesus Christ.”
Jesus VR, the first feature-length virtual reality film ever made, screened at the Venice Film Festival last week.
Being invited to one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world was “unbelievable,” said Hansen.
Hansen had the idea for the film last summer; he spent six weeks in Matera, Italy, making the film last fall. . . .
September 18 update: Robbie Collin at The Telegraph in the UK:
What exactly [virtual reality’s “Al Jolson moment”] might consist of remains unclear, though it seems unlikely Jesus VR will be it. For one thing, the technology isn’t quite there yet. Despite the image’s 4K resolution – in theory, as sharp as the best new HD televisions – the magnified pixels on the smartphone screen are clearly visible, which renders colours grubby and actors’ faces soggily indistinct.
Then there are what might be called the aesthetic pitfalls. Just as a rowing team is only as fast as its slowest member, a virtual reality film is only as plausible as its most saucer-eyed, cud-chewing extra, and Jesus VR boasts a menagerie of them.
In the Last Supper scene, I struggled to pay attention to Jesus’s words because I was so distracted by the disciples, who all seemed to be switching randomly between two facial expressions: beard-twirling solemnity and sea bass-mouthed astonishment. And during the crucifixion, I missed the nails going in because I spotted a jeering bystander who looked oddly like Jeremy Corbyn.
The fact the viewer’s eyes and mind can wander isn’t a flaw of virtual reality: it’s the point. But given the Life of Christ is a story in which the main character should be something of an attention magnet, you’d have to concede it’s less than ideal source material.
If more reviews come out of the Venice film festival, I will add them to this post.