Review: ‘ABE VR’ Puts You at the Mercy of a Robot’s Bloodthirsty Search for Love


Hammerhead VR is soon to launch their début VR film experience ABE VR, a horror experience based on the striking short film ABE (2013) from Writer / Director Rob McLellan. I find out what it’s like to be the object of affection for a murderous robot obsessed with finding love at any cost.

The theme of humanity’s instinctive distrust of technology, in particular the prospect of artificial intelligence, is a recurrent one in Cinema. From the cold, calculating and malevolent HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) to the jealous, rampaging mechanoid from Saturn 3 (1980) to the near-extinction of the human race at the hands of a super computer in The Terminator (1984), we just don’t seem to want to trust those AIs. Interestingly, despite technology now meshed ever more transparently and irrevocably into our daily lives, that paranoia seems never to have dissipated and ABE VR proves that that deep set fear is still ripe for tapping into.

This virtual reality, real-time rendered re-imagining of Writer/Director Rob McLellan’s disturbing short film from 2013 tells the story of ABE, a robot servant imbued with artificial intelligence and, according to him, the capacity to love. ABE VR is a new VR film, the first in a series of immersive narrative experiences from London and Newcastle based Hammerhead VR, that puts you in the place of ABE’s female victim from the original movie.

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Hammerhead’s take on ABE is a faithful recreation of the original for the most part, including the bone-chilling performance from Sam Hoare as ABE and the excellent, pulsing and broodingly ominous score. But it successfully manages to take advantage of virtual reality’s ability to convince you that you’re sharing or invading personal space with real beings. Unfortunately, in the case of ABE, that being is a malfunctioning, murderous robot whose obsessive hunt for requited love has lead him to ‘fix’ all of those who don’t reciprocate … permanently.

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As ABE gazes upon and then straight at you, those cold, dead, luminous eyes are chilling to witness ‘first hand’. And as the piece unfolds and the inevitable final scene takes place with you as ABE’s target, I’d challenge even the most hardened of horror fans not to wince a little.

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On the whole however, ABE VR plays for visceral scares only in its finale. It’s the psychological potential of VR film as a storytelling platform that Hammerhead’s re-creation manages to convey so well. Instead of merely playing witness to a scene, you’re part of it. As such, it’s interesting to note that my feelings toward ABE after experiencing the VR film are different than after I’d watched the original some 12 months earlier, despite both sharing an identical narrative. Previously, despite ABE’s obviously terrifying intent, listening to him recount his unfortunate story brought about fleeting feelings of empathy, perhaps even sympathy. In VR however, when you are the virtual target of ABE’s ‘affections’, things are quite different. In my case, any empathy I felt previously was converted wholesale into a single, visceral desire: To get the fuck out of there!

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The experience is available on HTC Vive and Oculus Rift (Rift version reviewed here) and Hammerhead have done a great job at leveraging Unreal Engine’s technical chops to recreate ABE in intricate detail. In fact, he’s arguably never looked more realistic. The original short looked great, but there were moments the visuals belied its low budget roots. Here of course, everything is digital, with no compositing seams to worry about. The digital set is gruesomely dressed too, with none too subtle clues as to your impending fate – this is not a place you want to be. My only gripe is that, as your virtual head is anchored to a reasonably convincing female torso, your view seems to rise disconcertingly when you turn your head from side to side. It’s a minor niggle if I’m honest, but noticeable nonetheless.

ABE VR represents a promising start not only for Hammerhead’s transition and commitment to virtual reality as a storytelling platform, but for the medium as a whole. It’ll go on release this month via both Steam and Oculus Home for free. If you’d like to know when it pops up for download, hit the sign up page over at Hammerhead here.

As for ABE himself, he’ll be back soon it seems. After the original short film’s enormous popularity, the rights were recently optioned by MGM and a full motion picture which is now in the works written and Directed by McLellan.


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  • CBMR

    I could really careless about games in VR but being in a film or TV series portraying one of the characters is what I am most excited about. I can just imagine being in a VR version of Criminal Minds..Chills!

    • Raphael

      Blah blah.

      • MdM

        Initially, I agreed with cubanito’s assessment about VR film, but you make quite a compelling counter-point here. Thanks for taking the time to share your expertise on the subject, Raphael.

        BTW, anyone know if ABE VR will be available on Gear VR? I assume there’s no real-time rendering done, and so it’s just a stereoscopic 360 video, which would run fine on any platform…?

        • Raphael

          I had been due to enter into a grueling 6 hour marathon across country today until I read cubanito92’s statement about “could really careless about games in VR”.

          That impacted me quite badly and I had to cancel the marathon. My many sponsors are furious and not really accepting my attempts to shift the blame squarely at cubanito92’s foot.

        • RoadToVR

          This is entirely real-time rendered. Which is why it’s labelled as VR film and not 360 video.

          • MdM

            Is there an explanation of the labels somewhere on the website? I do like the idea of labels, especially when they tell me what platforms the particular application supports. In this case, I mistakenly assumed 360 video to be monoscopic 360 (since that’s usually the case) and VR film to be stereoscopic 360. What’s the label for stereoscopic 360?

        • Richard Feilden

          I emailed the producers and the answer was that they had no plans as of now to port to the Gear VR. The more people who ask them however…

          I’m really hoping they do. I can’t use a Vive or Rift in my classes (I teach film) as the college isn’t going to set me up with the required kit, but I’m happy to take in my own Gear VR to let students experience this new form of filmmaking on. This would be killler (heh) for the class on women’s representation in film.

    • Guess you don’t play games :)

      • CBMR

        Hahahaha I actually game a lot dude. Almost every day. I’m just more interested in the other aspects of VR not necessarily only gaming haha

        • Well, can only guess you don’t want to try any game with it :)

  • RavnosCC

    This looks so interesting, signed up for the notice when it goes live on SteamVR :-D