Virtual reality movies will change the way we see ourselves and the world.
Virtual reality has found a home in mainstream entertainment, but you won’t find virtual reality movies in a theater. Instead, for now their unique offerings are on display at festivals and special events. Virtual reality movies thrust you into the action in a whole new way by giving you the opportunity to exist outside your personal reality, changing your persona or even your gender. That’s what I experienced with Dark Corner Studios’ Mule; for six minutes I was in a man’s body inside a horrifying virtual world.
Waking Up as a Man in Mule
This is awkward. I’m naked on top of a bed, and there’s an unclothed woman demanding payment from me. I can’t move, though, and something definitely isn’t right, because I’ve got a penis. That’s a first, and I can’t stop staring at it.
The woman, who I now realize is a prostitute, is coaxing me to open my eyes, but it’s challenging. I like the darkness. As I open my eyes, the light and her face come into view and break the peace. She’s moving around the room, her body exposed to me, and I can’t motion to her, can’t speak. I’m paralyzed and on my back. She soon realizes something is wrong with me and leaves. I’m relieved, as her frenzied movements were making me uncomfortable. I don’t know how I got here or if I’ll get out alive. That’s the catch, though. I don’t think I am alive anymore. I’m going to be found in this hotel room, exposed and vulnerable.
I’m on the floor now, and there’s a knock at the door. Words fail me, so I’m just lying here, helpless. I’ve looked around the room for clues, but it’s just a mess and I can’t focus on anything. I’m too confused.
It’s the maid, and she’s coming in. I look down at my penis again, because I can’t stop looking. It’s the only thing that connects me to this body, the knowledge that I am a man. I can’t help but think it’s inappropriate for me to be staring at a man’s genitals. I then have to remind myself that it’s my body and I can look as much as I want. I’ve also realized, after staring at my torso for an extended time, that I should have spent more time at the gym. Will the maid notice? Her scream at discovering my body makes me think she won’t remember whether I was ripped — her nightmares will be about the fact that she was just going about her rounds and found a corpse. I feel bad for causing her trauma — I’ll soon realize she’s not the only one who will suffer from my death.
When my death comes in Mule, it’s after a harrowing time of emotions, unsettling events and unexpected circumstances. I welcome the appearance of an Igor-like character who opens the furnace’s chute for my body to enter. I’m not afraid but relieved, because the horrors of this virtual world are coming to an end, and I’m ready to get back to my estrogen-filled reality.
Women and Mule
With Mule, I wanted to discover how it would feel to be a man in a virtual world. The film’s director, Guy Shelmerdine, was present when I watched it. I asked him whether he considered how women would react to being a man (and in such a sensitive condition).
“To be honest, I didn’t. This story just happened that it was a man,” he said, adding that the reactions he gets from women are great.
“Women love it,” Shelmerdine said. “To be a man and have a penis.”
“When we were editing it, we were like, ‘Oh, OK, that!’” he said of the genitals being on display. “It’s fun to see [a woman’s] reaction.” Shelmerdine did shoot a “safe version” where the man and woman are clothed, but it was scrapped — thankfully.
“It just felt like I was trying to tell the story, and well, if he was in a hotel room with a prostitute, he would be naked and she would too,” he said.
I agreed completely, because without the unsettling view of my genitals I would have never been thrust into believing I was a man. Nudity is a simple narrative device that works very effectively in Mule’s virtual world.
Setting the Stage for Virtual Reality Movies
Shelmerdine has always been interested in immersive cinema. When virtual reality started to penetrate the market a few years ago, he took advantage.
“When something comes along that gives you a whole new perspective and a whole different way of working, you know, that’s pretty exciting,” he said. “It’s inspiring, exciting, and it’s why I’ve thrown myself into [virtual reality].”
With his work, Shelmerdine wants to entertain people in a new way.
“Somebody takes themselves out of the world for five minutes and immerses themselves into another world, which you could say is the same for cinema, but it’s more so with VR because literally you’re cutting yourself off from the world. I want to take them on a journey that they would not get to go on in real life or on a day-to-day basis,” he said.
Shelmerdine adds to the entertainment factor of his films by creating “a [real-world] vignette of what the brand is for that particular film” that “tends to mirror what the film is about” and enhances the story. He finds it more fun than just a seat and a headset, as other companies provide to show their virtual reality movies.
“It’s theatrics, isn’t it? That’s why I do it,” he said.
At events and festivals, Mule brings viewers into a mausoleum and they lie down in a coffin. For the film Catatonic, viewers sit in a wheelchair that vibrates. I was shown Catatonic too during my visit to Dark Corner Studios — in the wheelchair. The chair brought the terror home as I was wheeled through an insane asylum filled with the characters of my worst nightmares, resulting in plenty of nervous laughter.
I took Mule very seriously — because being in a virtual reality horror film is serious business. Shelmerdine remarked that he did not notice me exploring every angle, such as behind me, because there is something going on everywhere. When he brought this to my attention, I realized just how immersive Mule had been because I was thinking along the lines of what I could realistically do inside the virtual world given the on-my-back position. I can look to the sides and in front of me, but to look behind would require lifting my body, and my character can’t feasibly do that given his condition — (nearly) dead. I may have missed something, but it validates just how much Mule took me out of reality and made me interpret my surroundings as I would in the real world: with limitations.
Mule proves that narrative virtual reality movies have the potential to elevate the cinematic experience, and I’m excited for what is coming soon from Shelmerdine and Dark Corner Studios — a science fiction film featuring a female lead.
You may be able to catch Mule at a festival near you. March 2-12, the film will screen at the Cinequest Film & VR Festival in San Jose, California. And March 29 through April 9, the film will appear at the 41st Cleveland International Film Festival. Can’t make it? Follow along on social media at #DarkCorner.