Interactive Film: The Twilight Zone

I can't think of a better candidate for interactive cinema adaptation than The Twilight Zone. This brilliant show was sort of horror meets sci-fi meets the surreal. In short, the whole schtick was "surprise me." The audience was rewarded in every episode with some kind of twist or paradigmatic shift by the episode's end. 

With narrative progression upended, this was truly a show that defied expectations. Interactive cinema, movies that allow viewers to make choices that impact the movie's progression/direction, is the ideal playground for expanding Twilight Zone's fundamental refusal to meet narrative expectations.

This article in Wired introduces us to the very beginnings of the project, which is truly in its infancy. As you can imagine, the biggest challenge lies in how to craft a film that entails interactivity that truly feels interactive. This means going a few steps beyond Choose Your Own Adventure stories in which the options (which did seem revolutionary to me at the time) were fairly obvious and ultimately it did read like a scripted novel with some room for reader "choices."

The creator, Ken Levine, has this to say about striking that delicate balance:

“Interactivity is a spectrum, it’s not binary,” he says. “I think of it as the viewer’s angle in the chair. When you watch something, you’re sitting back in the chair. When you’re gaming, you’re leaning forward in the chair. This is an interesting place in between … your brain is forward in the chair.”

Levine values the empathy that The Twilight Zone established between the viewer and characters, who are never reoccurring and only stay on screen for 30 minutes. His goal is to add "agency" to the mix. Frank Rose touched upon this in The Art of Immersion as he argues that enhanced engagement requires and creates empathy. The holy grail of interactive cinema is creating an empathy beyond film and TV, by allowing the viewer to have some agency, some say in the trajectory. 

This is one of many projects seeking this goal, but I would surmise that by adapting The Twilight Zone, Levine stands a solid chance of getting there, whatever "there" looks like.

VR is coming to a theater near you!

It can be hard for old-timers like me to not think of cheesy Lawnmower Man and (awesome but simple) Battletech when the topic of VR emerges. We clearly need to don some goggles, open our eyes, and pay attention to this rapidly changing and expanding technology. The apparatuses and available content are definitely on the upswing but we're also clearly in a transitional moment.

This article from Variety reports on the likely (upcoming?) addition of location-based VR to IMAX movie theaters. In large part this seems like an obvious coupling: IMAX and VR are both about immersive media experiences. On the other hand, they are quite different and from what I can see the IMAX attributes are taking up the foreground space here.

VR has the promise to transport you elsewhere from wherever you are. Anchoring VR to a specific location makes sense for exploring a new technology, but it's really beside the point. IMAX, on the other hand, has to be location-specific. Special auditoriums are decked out with specific equipment from massive screens to audio to projection (and glasses of course). You can't move an IMAX theater without a substantial investment. 

In terms of content, movies are arguably less interactive then other digital media formats. VR is designed to place you in a virtual context in which you can interact. These two forms of media engagement are not in diametric opposition, but they are vastly different. Filmmakers have been trying to figure out how to make film more interactive for a while now, and this new move from IMAX may be a gesture toward a more interactive cinema.

What IMAX is proposing seems to pull aspects of VR into the theater context, but the experiential goal is unclear. Would you wear googles to see the movie, rendering projection and a big screen unnecessary? Would you play a game related to a film, right after seeing the movie (this seems like the idea, given the reference to the John Wick game)? We'll have to wait and see. For now, the plan raises compelling questions for content, exhibition, synergy, convergence, and engagement.

Read Variety's article by clicking here.