Future tech

Jesus’ story gets laughable virtual reality treatment, and Venice critics reel

The acting is poor and the 360-degree, 4K technology is a work in progress, so that, rather than having the sense they are walking alongside Christ, the viewer feels like a static spectator

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 September, 2016, 5:01pm
UPDATED : Friday, 09 September, 2016, 5:33pm

Even having Jesus as its central character could not save a virtual reality biblical epic from the bile of slightly nauseated critics at the Venice Film Festival.

Jesus VR, The Story of Christ is billed as the first feature-length film made for a virtual reality platform, allowing viewers to be present at both Jesus’ birth and crucifixion in a 90-minute account of the key events of the New Testament.

Headsets strapped on, critics at the world’s oldest film festival were given a taste of the film, which was shot in 360-degree 4K video, allowing viewers to see everything going on around them from all angles. The film was shown in a new VR Theatre on Venice’s Lido.

“We saw this not as much as a movie as a way to travel back in time,” says producer Alex Barder, from virtual-reality production firm VRWERX.

Shot on location in Matera, the Italian village where Mel Gibson’s violent drama The Passion of the Christ (2004) was filmed, the experience takes you through the defining moments of Christ’s life: his birth in a stable crib, his baptism, the last supper with his apostles and his death by crucifixion.

Except that the technology is still in the teething stages.

So rather than having the sense they are walking alongside Christ, the viewer’s perspective is that of being a spectator standing or sitting near the blandly portrayed prophet.

“I was hoping you’d have a sense of Jesus as a kind of mystical apparition, something a bit more than a low-quality actor in a robe,” says one disappointed critic.

The end product, directed by David Hansen, is expected to become available by Christmas on all major mobile and premium VR platforms, from Google Cardboard to PlayStation VR. But it is a film strictly for believers.

The vaguely seasick sensation caused by swivelling around in chairs to see what’s happening behind would have been a price worth paying if it meant running with dinosaurs or dodging maces swung by Attila the Hun.

As it was, viewers found themselves distractedly wondering why they appeared to be sitting on a hut’s cooking fire as Jesus washed feet, or turning round to stare at the extras in case they did something.

“The technology is still in the early stages,” Barder admits, though he defends the subject choice, saying the majority of people canvassed (in the US) had said Jesus’ life was the period they would most want to be able to visit.

“It’s the most important story told in a way a story has never been told,” he says, but wouldn’t reveal who funded the venture or how much it had cost.