Virtual reality is as good a place as any place to meet people, especially during a pandemic. In documentary filmmaker Joe Hunting’s non-judgmental dive into the rapidly changing metaverse – entirely within the realm of VRChat, where thousands of players reinvent themselves behind avatars of their choosing – we meet couples who have fallen in love online, hearing-impaired strangers who find a new way to connect with others; and lonely souls who say their online friends saved their lives. As the real world lost its collective spirit (Hunting began “spinning” in December 2020), these people were giving lap dances and house parties in cyberspace.
Sometimes “We Met in Virtual Reality” – which had its world premiere at the (virtual) Sundance Film Festival last January, and now finds its way into (virtual) release via HBO Max – feels like a feature film infomercial for this relatively new means of contactless connection. Except VR has been around for years and years, and Hunting’s optimistic take on how “you can be whoever you’ve always wanted to be” seems more than a little Pollyannaish.
On the contrary, I expected virtual reality to look more real and much less virtual. Turns out VRChat is full of glitchy bugs. Full body tracking gives users more control over how their avatars move, while instantly rendered animation struggles to follow (props float, CG bodies break every time they move, and a kiss in the world seems as convincing as a pair of plastic Barbies squashed together). VRChat hurts the eyes, but probably not the imagination, because people who have always wanted to look like Gizmo from “Gremlins”, a piece of blue-eyed devil or a teenage anime character with a skirt fetish can live their dreams.
The doc is unlikely to gain tech from converts, though those who’ve spent time doing VR will likely excuse the choppy visuals. (It’s not as rudimentary as Club Penguin or Minecraft, but a far cry from “Ready Player One” or the dazzling world depicted in last year’s “Belle.”) The film shows that virtual reality can be a great place for uncomfortable people. who they are with IRL. Except Hunting never shows the users behind those avatars, embracing their chosen identities the way progressives honor other people’s pronouns.
Those troubled by this might find it hard to bend their brains around the kinds of relationships depicted here, like the shy guy (Toaster, who spent two years in mute mode, silently shuffling around counters) with an obsessive crush on a virtual belly dance instructor DustBunny. There’s an upside to “not being able to touch or feel the person you love,” insists a pink-haired cartoon character. “You only fall in love with their personality.” It’s not the newest idea in the world (see “Cyrano de Bergerac” or the 1-900 industry for analog examples), but Hunting presents such concepts as if they were thought for the very first time.
The whole package is good news for Mark Zuckerberg, Meta and Web 3.0, as it offers a sampling of positive encounters that can come from creating virtual spaces – which here range from a driving simulator to an immersive visit to through Jurassic Park. At a time when users were forced to maintain social distancing, the appeal of such activities is almost self-evident. But what about the downsides: people retreating into virtual reality to avoid the real world, the way real money is exchanged, and the many instances in which users warp (instead of offer a more authentic side of their personality)?
The Hunt leaves those questions for other journalists or filmmakers to explore. “We Met in Virtual Reality” is a warm and often humorous look at the sociology of these spaces. This can’t really be described as the truth – no more cinematic accomplishments on the virtual wall. The environments already look dated, as do many of the avatar designs (like the one that looks and sounds like Kermit the Frog), though there’s no denying the creativity many have put into their virtual identities.
VR technology will only keep getting better, until we take the more philosophical arguments of Rodney Ascher’s “A Glitch in the Matrix” seriously. But Hunting seems drawn to the lo-fi charm of the scenes he captures here, as if to reinforce the point that looks shouldn’t matter in a field where people are essentially trying to escape their looks and feelings. felt IRL. To some, such behavior may seem like evidence of a mental disorder. But what are films if not a passive version of the same dynamic? Maybe these strangers to real reality aren’t so weird after all.