Spheres / 1943: Berlin Blitz review – VR becomes reality in Venice | Venice film festival 2018

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The virtual reality section at Venice is growing at an almost exponential rate: two years ago it was low-key, notable mainly for a demure Sunday-school retelling of the life of Jesus. In 2018, it is a substantial exhibition featuring state-of-the-art tech and an almost overwhelming range of entries, some of them “full body” concepts in which audience members suit up for a complete immersion. Interestingly, the vocabulary is still in a state of flux: are they “projects”, “installations”, “films”? The festival has intriguingly repurposed a building on a once deserted island to house the event: the Lazzaretto Vecchio, home to a 16th-century plague hospital which has now been imaginatively converted into an exhibition space.

Perhaps the biggest film in the competition is Spheres, written and directed by artist and film-maker Eliza McNitt and produced by Darren Aronofsky. It’s a freakily cosmic three-part VR series that reinvents the medieval concept of the music of the spheres. The spectator floats through space, and planets and heavenly bodies loom up hugely. The VR sensors on your hands allow you to “touch” them, perhaps plunging you inside the planet – a mysterious, ambient wash of fiery red or cool blue. Or touching will elicit its enigmatic music. The first part of the film is an introduction to this vast arena; part two is narrated by Jessica Chastain and is about black holes; the third part is narrated by Patti Smith and is about the cosmic origin of music.

Visually, Spheres is an engaging mix of Stanley Kubrick and Carl Sagan: I could almost hear the sonorous voice of the great scientist and broadcaster intoning the word “cos-moze”. But the narration is closer to a Terrence Malick-type whisper or murmur as we float through space. For all that this is 21st-century stuff, it’s also pleasingly comparable to the “Laserium” and “Laserock” displays that the London Planetarium used to put on in the 70s.

I wish I liked it a bit more, but I found Spheres an essentially static event and a rather finite experience, in that cinematic or quasi-cinematic sense that we are inevitably looking for here, like a hands-on exhibit at the Science Museum. Perhaps Spheres is best experienced on the basis of just one of its episodes: probably the first. There are some great headtrip visuals.

1943: Berlin Blitz.
Fly by night … 1943: Berlin Blitz.

A slightly more rewarding VR event was the eerie and disturbing 1943: Berlin Blitz. Film-maker David Whelan has taken an in-flight recording made by BBC correspondent Wynford Vaughan-Thomas, who went with his sound recordist on what we might today call a “ride-along” on a Lancaster bombing raid on Berlin, commenting on everything as he did so and creating a remarkable documentary record. Whelan recreates around this audio track the experience of being inside the bomber, listening to the pilots and navigators talking tersely to each other and then, on the return journey, laughing and joking in the very midst of carnage. It really is very strange and quite nightmarish, especially when you see the sound man recording Vaughan-Thomas’s words and the ambient noise of the plane on what looks like a little Dansette record player. It is surreal, menacing and induced in me a sense of disorientation and almost panic at being plunged into this uncanny world.

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Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Spheres / 1943: Berlin Blitz review – VR becomes reality in Venice | Venice film festival 2018

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