In 2014, a company called Condition One released the first extended 360-degree Oculus Rift film. It was a narratively and visually disjointed pseudo-documentary shot on early 360-degree film equipment, and for the initial crop of VR fans, a bit of a letdown. But Condition One kept working, and this year, founder Danfung Dennis has returned with a companion piece to An Inconvenient Sequel — the new documentary about former Vice President Al Gore and global warming, which is also premiering at Sundance.
The short is a major step forward for Condition One, and an example of how well virtual reality video can capture big natural landscapes — albeit with a premise that makes this achievement sort of awkward.
What’s the genre?
VR nature mini-documentary.
What’s it about?
Al Gore goes to Greenland to see some of the melting ice that will usher in the climate apocalypse.
Okay, what’s it REALLY about?
Hypothetically, this is our wake-up call: we’re watching glaciers melt at an unprecedented pace, and as a concluding clip of flooded houses shows, that water will eventually end up drowning our coastal cities.
Practically, it’s about very attractive long shots of Greenland, with the loose understanding that something bad is happening.
But is it good?
That depends on what you think Melting Ice’s purpose should be. As an aesthetic object, it’s quite attractive — huge fields of snow and rushing water, stitched seamlessly enough that you can sit and enjoy their glory. As a call to action, though, it’s sort of muddled.
Environmentalist virtual reality docs tend to fall into two categories: look at this hideous thing that is happening, and look at this beautiful thing we’re going to lose. Condition One brought both of these to Sundance last year. In the Presence of Animals captured the lives of at-risk species in virtual reality, and iAnimal contained graphically bloody footage from a series of pig slaughterhouses. The whole “empathy machine” idea of VR suggests that its goal is short-circuiting your rational mind and pumping feelings straight into your visual cortex.
But Melting Ice doesn’t work with this heuristic. We know the melting ice is bad, because Al Gore shows up at the beginning of the film for a terse conversation with a scientist, and there’s some voiceover about how we’ve never seen anything like this. But given how short and experiential the piece is, we’re not given the context to tell how bad it is, or what Greenland would look like in a better (or worse) world. Up until that final, random flood footage, the experience i just pretty.
To be fair, this isn’t really Condition One’s fault. An Inconvenient Sequel gets an hour and a half to explain the same thing, and it loses focus.
What emotions are involved here?
Respectful awe at an unnatural phenomenon that is going to kill our children.
How can I actually watch it?
I saw Melting Ice on Google Daydream, and Condition One tends to put its videos up on YouTube. So a 360-degree video around the time of An Inconvenient Sequel’s July 28th release makes sense, although we could also see it sooner than that.