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.