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.
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.
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.
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!
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.