The question is ridiculous, but usefully so. VR
will never be like the movies, culturally or aesthetically, and the best way to understand why may be
to imagine you’re experiencing the 1942 Warner
Brothers classic not as a linear story viewed from
a theater seat, but as an immersive world accessed
by a digital headset.
Most of us would never leave Rick’s Café
Américain. We’d go behind the bar with Sascha,
hover by Emil the croupier at the roulette table,
hang out with Sam as he played “As Time Goes By”
again. Me, I’d be following Peter Lorre’s sniveling
Ugarte. But the central drama of Rick’s rekindled
love and sacrifice for Ilsa Lund? We’d probably
never get that far. Director Michael Curtiz and
the Warner Brothers elves did such a brilliant job
imagining the world of Casablanca that we’d be
content to explore it until we bumped up against
the walls, like Jim Carrey in The Truman Show.
Similarly, a virtual-reality Citizen Kane might
be a survey of the title character’s infinite basement, each talisman sparking its own flashback
in no particular order. The Godfather VR Edition
might allow us to prowl the haunted house of Don
Corleone’s extended family, with the drama of
Michael’s slow rise and rot only one small thread
amid the warp and weft.
VR will never become the new cinema.
Instead, it will be a different thing. But what is
that thing? And will audiences trained in passive
linear narrative—where scene follows scene like
beads on a string, and the string always pulls us
forward—appreciate what the thing might be? Or
will we only recognize it when the new medium
has reached a certain maturity, the way audiences
in 1903 sat up at The Great Train Robbery and
recognized that, finally, here was a movie?
As a movie critic and a writer who has been
covering film over 35 years, I recognize that I’m
part of a vast viewership beholden to a media
format that has passed its apogee: the roughly
two-hour visual experience, usually narrative, pro-
Traditional movies were the popular art form of the
20th century. Is virtual reality what comes next?
By Ty Burr
The End, 1991
Synthetic polymer paint and graphite on canvas
70 x 112 inches