A Few Thoughts on “The Limit” – New VR film from Robert Rodriguez

I’m looking for a narrative VR film I can really love and want to watch over and over again. Could it be, “The Limit?”

“The Limit” is Robert Rodriguez’ latest entry into the world of narrative filmmaking using VR technology. Released on November 20, 2018, it’s an action film that takes the audience on a brief journey to find out why some bad guys are chasing “us.” It’s not much more than that. It’s fun, but in the end not very ambitious as storytelling. Rodriguez, joined by his son, Racer on this outing, isn’t known for his thoughtful character dramas, but for action and trying new things. This film reflects those values. It’s a non-stop action sequence, with only a few moments of relief. For action fans, it may be the next thing. Or?

Let’s Talk Story
The story begins with “us” (the viewer) sitting in a bar, and meeting M-13 (Michelle Rodriquez) who is obviously a badass waitress. The filmmakers take little time to set up anything, but we quickly learn that we can’t speak and have some kind of AR “enhancements” that enable us to see bad guys. Other than that, we have no idea why we’re here. If you read the synopsis for the film, you’ll discover that we are “…a rogue agent with a mysterious past…” — whatever.

We are quickly forced to flee said bad guys with M-13. After that, we mostly get shot, help drive her Jeep, and suffer repeated blackouts after bad things happen to us. But, for some reason, we don’t seem to die from anything we suffer, including a gunshot to the stomach and a freefall from an airplane. Guess that all needs some explanation, which M-13 gladly gives in a long static monologue that tries to fill in a few details in an attempt to convince us that this all matters for some reason. Oh, we’re kind of alike. And now she’s got a plan and goal for herself. Finally! But it mostly involves us walking in to a poorly defended warehouse, killing the stupid henchmen, and confronting the Big Bad Guy (played by Norman Reedus of Walking Dead fame.) He wants something we’ve got, of course. A kind of slow, pitiful chase ensues. We have another blackout. But then there’s a twist ending. You get the idea. Oh, and the story will continue. Theoretically. If anyone would shell out for more. I’m not convinced they’ve given us anything to hope for. Michelle is badass and they treat her pretty well in terms of not really playing on her sexuality. Points for that.

Ultimately, as with many films in this genre, the story suffers for the sake of the experience. Why does this have to be? I’d call it more of a ‘ride-along’ experience. We (the audience) are immersed in the action but are almost completely passive characters, only taking initiative for a moment toward the end. So, we get to watch M-13, the real Protagonist, go through her journey that our appearance at the beginning seems to spark.

The problem with this, and many stories, is that we have no reason to care. We don’t know who we are, or who she is, other than a little backstory and a twist at the end. The stakes aren’t even that high for most of the film because it seems that we can just get shot, survive a car crash, a freefall from a plane, etc., and it’s no big deal. Guess “we’re” pretty badass, too. But “we” don’t say or think much of anything the whole time.

On the medium and techniques used in “The Limit.”
Just a note for would-be viewers; it’s not full 360 VR, more like 180 in a custom “Surreal Theater” that does fill in the other 180 with a dark cineplex, in case you want to see how cool it is to be alone in a dark cineplex.

It’s not an open world by any stretch. The directors choose and maintain our focus using the camera as in traditional cinema and it’s a completely linear timeline. The main difference here is the increased sense of immersion and some ability to look around a limited frame. I think it works pretty well, and it seems to me to be the best option for story-telling. If you let the audience just wander around, it’s hard to create a narrative flow and pacing. That works for exploring worlds in a game setting, but I don’t think we humans will lose our enjoyment of and desire for stories to be told to us. I’m not alone in thinking about ways to guide a viewer, using other cues (visual & auditory) to direct attention but without locking an audience’s POV one frame. But it’s a big challenge, to be sure. The directors do choose to pull us out of the POV a few times so we can watch ourselves drive away, etc. Also, they cut to insert shots that are from our POV, but are done in traditional cuts rather than “moving” us closer. It works fine.

Our character cannot speak for some reason. We communicate, very little, via some kind of text screen, but I can’t figure out where it may be located, if our body and face are supposed to be normal looking. At the beginning the logic doesn’t work. Maybe it begins to make sense later (spoiler!) when M-13 reveals that she’s also a biconically enhanced person. Can she see our communications in a kind of heads-up AR display?

The main problem with a lack of our ability to communicate is that the film is mostly a monologue by M-13. It gets really tedious when she has a long exposition scene where she puts the pieces together for herself and for us. Was this just lazy on the part of the writers, or an inherent limitation of the medium?

Final observation; my feeling is that running time on an immersive VR action film must be kept short. This film is really about 15 mins of actual narrative and Rodriquez made a good decision to keep it brief. Because the viewer is immersed and can’t control their point of view much, the intense action and motion will certainly cause some queasiness for many viewers. It did for me. I could never watch a feature length film without breaks if it is shot in this style. Maybe with some downtime scenes? I’m sure they took that into consideration, but it’s something for all of us to consider if we’re planning a VR film. On that note, an immersive story without all of the intense action is likely just fine for a longer run time. Then, the challenge is to have a real story. And, does anyone want to watch a ‘talky’ character drama in VR? Perhaps?

Other notes: I watched the 3D version on an Oculus Go headset. The film is delivered as an app from the Occulus story and includes a lot of behind-the-scenes material that I think will be fun to watch. The app download is pretty big, over 3GB,ut it’s not a problem to me. You can watch this sitting in a chair as the film is not a full 360 experience.

The Tree of Life’s Invitation To Grace

Now out on DVD, Terrence Malick’s latest film, The Tree of Life, is an ambitious and evocative film that challenges viewers with a wide-ranging narrative that touches on deeply personal moments between family members and the biggest of all questions, the creation of the cosmos.

Now out on DVD, Terrence Malick’s latest film, The Tree of Life, is an ambitious and evocative film that challenges viewers with a wide-ranging narrative that touches on deeply personal moments between family members and the biggest of all questions, the creation of the cosmos. While some people find Malick’s work to be tedious, and inscrutable, I find The Tree of Life to be a compelling, if imperfect, examination of the deepest questions of life and relationships.

Malick introduces his thematic conflict of Grace vs. Nature in the persons of Mr. & Mrs. O’Brien, played by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain. They are parents to three boys, growing up in the 1950s in small-town Texas. The film closely follows the life of the oldest, Jack, played beautifully by newcomer Hunter McCracken and, in middle age, by Sean Penn.

“There are two ways through life; the way of Nature and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.” With these words, Jack’s mother introduces her invitation to live in grace. She is a playful, warm, loving presence in the boys’ life. Contrasting this is Jack’s father’s point-of-view, that of Nature; “It takes fierce will to get ahead in this world.” He is a man consumed by frustration and disappointment. He is driven to fight for every scrap of ground, every rung on the ladder of success. And his mission is to instill his values in the lives of his boys, dismissing the way of grace espoused by their mother.

The unexpected death of R.L., the middle son, at age 19 sets the conflict in motion. This moment in time is explored briefly in the beginning of the film but the majority of the film is told in flashback to the sometimes idyllic, sometimes tempestuous childhood of Jack and his brothers. Older Jack (Sean Penn) is introduced as he attempts, now in middle age, to deal with the conflict and unresolved guilt from his childhood. Jack’s journey as a boy and as an adult is explained by Jack himself, “Father, Mother, always you wrestle inside me. Always you will.”

Malick’s brings this world to life in his typically lyric, evocative storytelling style. He makes liberal use of jump-cuts and repetition, and a floating, fluid camera. Long periods pass without dialogue, allowing the actors and their subtle expressions to convey what is happening. This style has its detractors and certainly demands more from an audience. However, I never found myself lost to the story, even when Malick inserts a lengthy montage, ambitiously taking us all the way back to the Big Bang (flashback-of-all-flashbacks!) Malick’s use of recurring images and sounds, the ocean, doorways, trees and light, contrasting modern steel architecture, create a beautiful visual and aural tapestry that invites multiple viewings.

Of course, a film that risks much and challenges its audience is bound to fall short at moments and have its detractors. The Creation Montage is one major aside that seems a bit long for its intended story purpose. I also questioned the passivity of the Protagonist, Jack. As a youth he is very active in boyish ways but seems compelled to act in ways that escalate into actual cruelty to his younger brother–the way of nature. Interestingly, he paraphrases St. Paul’s observation from the 7th chapter of Romans about doing the very thing he doesn’t want to do. As the adult Jack, Sean Penn spends most of the film looking tired and pensive. He never makes a decisive step to address the conflict.

On more reflection, I am oddly comforted that Jack is never forced to act, as an adult, in order to find forgiveness and grace. He is drawn to it by his mother and brother. They open a door and invite him to step through. Isn’t this really what grace is all about? Normally we say that a Protagonist must act, must choose, must risk. Malick seems to be saying, “No, grace can come to us in other ways.” This is truly Grace – unmerited favor rather than self-saving action. It’s not typical Hollywood, and it is a compelling message for us.

Short Film Collaboration with Urban Non-Profits

We are all about making films that work on multiple levels. They need to be great stories and great cinema, but we can also make them work beyond entertainment.

We are all about making films that work on multiple levels. They need to be great stories and great cinema, but we can also make them work beyond entertainment.

Our upcoming short film project, Street Language, is an example of what we’d like to do more of in the Denver area. The production is a collaboration between professional filmmakers, students, and volunteer crew members PLUS local organizations that work in our urban area with at-risk youth, the homeless, and marginalized people in our community.

The point is to make a film through a process that provides mentoring for emerging filmmakers and also serves the needs of non-profits through its story and end uses that go beyond festivals and normal distribution.

We are pleased to be working with actors from the Colorado film community like Luciano Munoz and JT Richardson. My Co-Producer, Chloe Anderson (Epicenter Pictures) is a young(er) filmmaker with whom I’ve worked over the years. My production company, 10X Productions, has done a lot of production out of the country, but we are eager to do more closer to home.

We begin principal photography on the weekend of August 20th – very soon! If you would like to connect with us, help us spread the word, or would like to be involved in this or future projects, let me know.

Here’s our IndieGoGo page, if you want to help us make it happen: http://www.indiegogo.com/streetlanguage

Stick Us Next To “Stripper Academy”

I was looking at the release schedule for our film in Australia. The company that bought the DVD rights there is set to release our film mid-September, right alongside two other films, “Universal Squadrons” and “Stripper Academy”!

I’m kind of excited to be there. Rather than being stuck in a faith-based film ghetto, a unique story of God’s grace and power is getting out to places we’d hope it would go.

God’s Work in God’s Time | Christian Independent Filmmaking

As a Christian involved in filmmaking, what do I think about success and failure?

[This article was originally posted on HOSFU, a Christian Indie Film site. Unfortunately, that site is now shut down and some of their pages are dead. So I thought I would re-post my article here. It received a lot of comments when I posted it so I think it’s worth throwing into the blogosphere again.]

The question: As a Christian involved in filmmaking, what do I think about success and failure?

God’s Work in God’s Time.

Do you ever find yourself anxious to see the fulfillment of something you feel God has promised? In our particular context as filmmakers, we are part of projects that can be huge, complex, time-consuming, and expensive. Personally, I’m working on a film project that began almost ten years ago and we expect to have impact for twenty more. “The Enemy God” film took us four years of preparation and fundraising, accompanying years of terrible political opposition from a foreign government, the collapse of a well-respected ministry, and then we finally were able to shoot it! Then it was on to post.

I can’t tell you how many times some well-meaning Christian told us that it was obvious to them that God ‘just wasn’t blessing it’ or that ‘if God were in it, the doors would just open’ and our lives would be easy. Over the years, though, we have seen miracles that have matched the obstacles. Now we are distributing the film, and the challenges continue – awards and lots of pats-on-the-back, followed by being flat broke and with a few cold shoulders from people we thought would be the biggest fans.

American Christian culture tends to interpret God’s will by what we term, “open doors.” We all get excited and praise God for amazing stories where an underdog Christian film finds popularity and, even better, box-office success. We tend to say things like ‘God is really blessing this film and we’re seeing lots of fruit from it.” And the converse is also true; if things don’t seem to be progressing, we may interpret it (or be told) that what we are attempting is not His will. If a project doesn’t gain great audience numbers, perhaps God isn’t blessing it. But is this a true way to discern things? In our Christian film community here, what do we think about success and failure?

Here are some thoughts I have had from long years with both in my ministry.

–       Sometimes, things that are in line with God’s will and purposes take more time than we expect. “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness” 1 Peter 3:9. Place yourself in the shoes of a devout Jew during the 400-year period between God’s last spoken prophecies in through the prophet Malachi and the appearance of Jesus the Messiah. You know the promises, are devout in your prayers for Messiah to come, and you believe that is it God’s will to save His people and to draw the nations to Himself. Yet there is a delay – long delay. Many generations die waiting. Do you think others talked a lot of trash about such beliefs? Like Job’s friends, religious people often have religious answers that seem to make sense and to be based in truth about God. However, like Job’s friends, their answers just happen to be wrong.

–       It is possible for Godly people to spiritualize activities that are done mostly by our own power and effort and skill. What I mean is that very talented people are capable of creating impact, even godly impact, without much dependence on God. I’m not about to point fingers or name names, because I understand that it is difficult for me to fully understand my own motivations and the source of the power and skill I try to demonstrate. Sometimes I am fully aware of God’s presence and overwhelming power as He performs tasks through me. Other times, I have to admit that I am not so sure. I believe I am being faithful, but I can lose the clarity about who is accomplishing a task. What’s more, I know I have worked ahead of (or sideways to) God on many occasions. I don’t think I’m the only one who finds this to be true in my life. My conclusion, therefore, is that I will be slow to judge both the “success” and the “failure” of work done in God’s name by my brothers and sisters. I believe it is possible for us to be ‘successful’ by some measures and in God’s name while entirely missing His point or intention. Likewise, it is possible for us to utterly ‘fail’ at something by any reasonable standard and still be doing exactly what God intends. That’s a mind and faith-bender!

–       We can learn from Christians who come from other cultures. Non-western Christians are more patient, in my experience. They are willing to wait, even in the face of overwhelming hurdles and delays, based on their understanding of God’s purposes. Americans, especially, have a culture of achievement and an innate desire to make things happen. It’s in our cultural DNA, inherited in some way from the explorers, pilgrims, and pioneers who have gone before us. We are almost unique in our independent, up-by-the-bootstraps-and-against-all-odds, attitudes. Most other cultures have more of a relational orientation and a value of community rather than the individual. This means they take a longer view and judge by other criteria than individual success in a single activity. They may even look down on individual accomplishment because it is not connected with progress of the community. We Americans have an almost religious aversion to this kind of talk; to say anything against individual initiative and success is certifiably Marxist or worse. Yet, in relational, community-focused cultures that have also embraced the gospel, I have seen and experienced what I would consider a healthy perspective on how the Kingdom moves forward. For them it’s not primarily through the faith and guts and risk and sweat of individuals. It is often by the patient faithful watching and slow, plodding obedience of the community following God together. What we might see as ‘closed doors’ they may explain as just the normal working out of the supernatural conflict that has been in process almost since the beginning of time itself. They take a step back, check on what they know about God, and keep walking forward. They don’t over-analyze or switch paths easily or quickly.

All of these ideas are ones I ponder as I work through my own film ministry here in the US and overseas. I wonder what your experience has been, or what your perspective might be on this subject? Have you experienced any of what I’m talking about?

The Second Trail – God Behind The Scenes

It was about a dream fulfilled and a God who made it all come together. I couldn’t put it down!”

The Second Trail
The Second Trail - Behind the scenes of The Enemy God

“This book is an exciting adventure in the art of filmmaking in a challenging environment and among diverse cultures.  It was about a dream fulfilled and a God who made it all come together.  I couldn’t put it down!” – Lita Stang

Sometimes, the stories behind a film equal the drama and emotion of the film itself. The making of our film, The Enemy God, has those kinds of stories behind it. Now, in a new book, Amber Castagna, one of the crew members on the film, captures the drama, the joys, the pain, and the miracles we saw in bringing one of God’s stories to the screen.

Amber has written her own account of the film in this new book, The Second Trail. We’re happy to be making it available alongside the DVD of the movie and some other books that tell about what God has done among the Yanomamö of Venezuela. You will be amazed and encouraged by this book!

Click here to check out the book: The Second Trail – The Making of A Yanomamö Film « The Enemy God – The Movie.