Road to VR‘s Chris Madsen steps into new interstellar, subterranean 360 3D thriller for Gear VR, SONAR, and finds a bleakly beautiful immersive gem of a movie. This is the first movie from Filmacademy Baden-Württemberg and looks to be a great preview of things to come from the institution.
There are not many offerings of 360 stereoscopic cgi virtual reality films currently available on the Samsung GearVR. The ones that are, such as Chris Milk’s Evolution of Verse, stand out as excellent examples of how powerful this particular format can be as evidenced by the hundreds of people I have seen gasp, shriek, laugh, and even cry when immersed in these experiences. Needless to say, when I heard there was a new science fiction CGI VR short film available, I was immediately on it.
Created by Philipp Maas and Dominik Stockhausen, SONAR takes you on a journey into the depths of a large asteroid via a sprawling ancient cave system. As the experience begins, you find yourself drifting down a corridor towards the cockpit of a spacecraft. Beyond the windows is the asteroid, the only sunlit object in the vastness of space. The epic score from Alexander Maas enhances the experience and immediately reveals this is a professional production.
A series of camera transitions begins, moving the viewer closer and closer to the surface of the asteroid which is riddled with twisted rock formations rising formidably from the distinctly alien surface towards the inky blackness of space above.
An open cavern moves into view on the hard surface below into which the craft begins a rapid descent. The smooth movement of the ship provides a reminder that this is an environment free of both atmosphere and gravity. Plunging into the depths of the pit the walls of rock beyond the glass move upward occasionally offering views into mysterious labyrinthine passages beyond.
A display on the ship’s control panel beeps indicating a distress signal emanating from 8 miles within the rock.
The journey towards the source allows the artists to show off the cave system. Occasional use of third person camera angles highlight the scale of the ship in contrast to the immense caverns and passages. The monochrome sepia palette sharpens the underground landscape of jagged rocks and giant columns resembling Gothic cathedrals in various states of decay. The blue of the control panel display seems out of place. Variations in the music creates a sense of wonder and a hint of danger; a beautiful nightmare that hasn’t quite taken its bad turn yet.
Reaching the source of the transmission, a ship can be seen perched high above on a ledge. A rover with a camera mount is sent out to investigate, connected to your ship by a cable resembling an umbilical cord. The video feed is transmitted to a screen depicting large gashes in the hull of the distant vessel. Suddenly, the rover disappears and the screen blanks out. The cable begins whipping about then suddenly goes taut pulling your ship hard against a rocky outcrop on the cliff, shattering the window in the process.
What happens next is completely unexpected and the highlight of the experience which I won’t spoil here. The following 60 seconds builds rapidly to a crescendo; the music becoming a cacophony of madness. By the time the brain begins processing the macabre and disturbing environment, the artists quickly take the concept and magnify it to a scale that only VR can adequately portray. In the end the viewer is left to project their own dark stories to the many unanswered questions.
SONAR is available in stereoscopic 3D 360 form for Gear VR, downloadable here. An older, monoscopic version designed for Oculus Rift is also available.