Roger Ebert Was Afraid of Virtual Reality Films (And Maybe He Was Right)

By  · Published on July 15th, 2015

Universal Pictures

The Last Starfighter is being redone as a TV show. Maybe not the most spectacular news (at last count, there are 30 other movies with a small-screen adaptation in the works), but The Last Starfighter has a big ol’ gimmick on its side (and yes, I use the word gimmick). It’s going to be a VR TV show.

Not the first VR TV show, mind you (also, VR = Virtual Reality, just in case that one threw you). I believe LL Cool J’s Lip Sync Battle wins the crown there. But it’s a VR TV show nonetheless. The deets, via Variety: it’s titled The Starfighter Chronicles, it’s being spearheaded by the VR company and Jonathan Betuel (who scripted the original film), and instead of a straight remake it’ll be a sci-fi cop show set in the Last Starfighter universe. “It’s about instilling a moral code,” explains Betuel. I’m not entirely sure what that means, but OK.

And when you strap on that VR headpiece, The Starfighter Chronicles will “feature special scenes that break the frame, allowing viewers equipped with virtual reality (VR) headsets to look around and explore the inside of a spaceship or immerse themselves in an alien firefight.”

I could list a bajillion reasons why I don’t think this is a viable TV concept (here’s one: if my focus is on control panel knobs in VR space, I’m not paying attention to the actual show and probably missing key details). Instead, I’ll let Roger Ebert harp on the core concept of a VR film. In his 1992 essay “The Chilling Film Concept of Virtual Reality,” Ebert asks the spooky ethical and existential questions that creep up when a VR movie (or as he calls them, “Vrovies”) could actually alter one’s consciousness.

Would we leave a Vrovie feeling, not that the experience was bad, but that it shouldn’t have happened to us? If Clint Eastwood had shot us, would we still be angry at him? If we’d had sex with the star of the Vrovie, how would our spouses feel? Would that count as cheating? And what would it be like, as a Vrovie star, to perform in two takes of every scene – the first one for the camera, the second one for the electrodes recording the feel of the your body?

It’s a fascinating piece. Not just because I’d never really considered the idea of VR infidelity, but because most of Ebert’s concerns have absolutely no bearing in today’s VR landscape. If I had to guess, I’d say he saw one or maybe both of these 1992 TV pieces on VR- one on CBS Evening News, the other on PBS’s Computer Chronicles. And in 1992, VR tech had only advanced as far as chunky polygon tech demos (presumably because 1992’s 3D graphics had only advanced that far), so Ebert could only speculate about VR’s future with Jetsons-level accuracy.

He was thinking true virtual reality; all five senses replicated through ones and zeroes. His hypothetical Vrovie was a rocket car chase alongside Julia Roberts or Alec Baldwin, depending which version you saw (and your sexual preference, probably, considering the Vrovie ends with Julia/Alec making a pass at you). But most importantly, the Hollywood celeb wasn’t the star of the Vrovie. Ebert was. And that concept – that in a VR narrative, the person in the helmet is the real protagonist – seems to have slipped away as VR film progress toward reality.

Hypothetically, if The Starfighter Chronicles is greenlit and ends up exactly the way it sounds, we won’t be the hero. We won’t even be a character. Just a spectral presence that’s vaulted over the fourth wall and can see (but not interact) inside fictional TV space. At best, maybe an actor shouts a prerecorded “Hey, newbie! Catch up, will ya?” like we’re a generic recruit tagging along with the important characters.

Granted, VR is still in its infancy and it’s not at all reasonable to demand that it start behaving like people imagined it would 20 years ago. But it does make me wonder… where does “movie” end, and “VR” begin?

Take Lost, which debuted at Sundance this year to pretty solid reviews. You’re in a dusky forest when you come across a severed robot hand. Then its owner shows up- a colossal robot crashing through the brush, looking for its missing piece. It sounds unbelievably neat, and apparently there are interactive elements (the hand and the robot both acknowledge your presence, and there’s a firefly you can mess with), but in this case, a “VR movie” is just a regular movie, seen from a VR perspective.

Lost is the first of many shorts from VR heavyweight Oculus, who nabbed various Pixar and Dreamworks artists to form their own Oculus Story Studio. Their second is Henry, about a lovable cartoon hedgehog who just needs a hug (but can’t get one, for obvious, spiky reasons). It doesn’t premiere for a few weeks, but check out this clip below.

What’s the key phrase, repeated multiple times? “I wanted to hug Henry.” Not “I got to hug Henry” or “I’m so glad I could hug Henry.” But “I wanted to hug Henry.” The implication being, Henry doesn’t allow us to hug Henry ourselves (although it has to end with someone hugging him, right?).

The thing is, we don’t need VR to make us want to hug Henry. I already want to hug Henry. He’s cute and he really wants a hug. I’m sold. That we can’t hug the huggable hedgehog- that we’re stuck as the passive observer in VR films, not an integral player- makes VR come off more like an incredible, future-awesome version of 3D (and ultimately, a gimmick) rather than the incredible next-gen medium we’re all waiting for.

And really, wouldn’t a true Vrovie be a video game? Because “movie” implies something you sit and watch, passively, not something you’re in control of. And because the gaming world is already giving us fully interactive VR dinosaur safaris (now there’s a Vrovie worth seeing). Kind of ironic, considering Ebert’s stance on the whole video game thing.