The best VR movies so far

In a nutshell

  • Virtual reality (VR) movies create immersive experiences that allow viewers to interact with the environment, unlike traditional films.
  • 360-degree videos are often confused with true VR, but only VR is fully computer-generated and interactive.
  • VR movies and experiences offer new ways to engage with storytelling, providing a participatory aspect that changes the viewer’s experience.

A movie theater has no ability to interact, so it does not. You may clap; you may yell, but the theater doesn’t care. The film passes through the projector and onto the projection screen. It’s the same every time. However, the immersive nature of virtual reality (VR) opens up whole new worlds of possibilities. In a home theater with Dolby 7.1 surround sound, you can hear a werewolf breathing behind you. In VR, you can turn around and see it. No longer are we limited by a frame in front of us through which our story unfolds. Instead, we are inside the story.

With box office hits like “Ready Player One” (2018) illuminating the possibilities of VR in the imagination of the audience, and with VR becoming more accessible, there are quite a few VR movies out there for you to explore today. In this article, we’ll look at what constitutes a VR movie and list some of the best VR movies available right now.

Defining VR movies

Let’s start with some definitions; there are a lot of new concepts here. “Reality” of course is the world we live in — but that’s a bit ambiguous. You may look at a plant and think, “That’s a rose,” only to discover that it’s made of plastic. While the plant isn’t a “real” plant, it’s an object in the real world and part of reality. You can touch it, you can smell it, you can look at it from high and low.

When we talk about virtual reality, we’re (for the most part) talking about visual images created by a computer to simulate the experience of reality. Collectively, different types of computer-generated realities are called XR or “Extended Reality.” The range extends from Virtual Reality on one end, where almost everything you see and hear is artificially generated, to Augmented Reality on the other, where some things are real and some are artificial. AR is like playing Pokémon Go or using a Snapchat filter that puts dog ears on you. This technology is evolving and so are the use cases for it. Additionally, 360-degree video is often referred to as — or rather, confused with — virtual reality. But since we’re video enthusiasts and professionals, we need to make this distinction here.

360 video vs. virtual reality

Lots of people actually think of 360-degree video when they hear VR movie. 360-degree video is shot with multiple cameras pointing in all directions. Each frame is then stitched together into a sphere. When you watch it with a virtual reality headset, it tracks your head movements to ensure the screen in front of your eyes reflects what you’d see if you looked up, down, left or right inside this sphere of video. This type of video is typical, everyday footage, usually H.264 ranging from 4 to 11K, edited on standard equipment and created in the usual way. 360-degree videos are mostly passive experiences. You sit or stand and watch things unfold, with the only decision being where to look.

By contrast, true virtual reality is entirely computer-generated, including objects, people and environments. It’s displayed in your VR headset by a CPU that decides how these objects would look from your vantage point. Since the objects are computer-generated, the computer knows what they look like from all angles and how they interact with light sources and each other. This lets you move your vantage point through a scene and see things from different angles by tilting your head or walking around, making the experience at least partially interactive — your decisions affect the scene as it’s displayed.

Imagine watching Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 masterpiece “Pulp Fiction” and being able to get up and see what’s inside the suitcase when Vincent and Jules open it. Being able to change your viewpoint is the big advantage of a VR experience and one of the things that tricks your mind into thinking it just might be the real reality.

“Pulp Fiction” (1994). Image courtesy: Miramax Films

The best 360 videos and VR movies right now

In this article, we’ll look at 1) some 360 videos, 2) some true VR movies and 3) some elaborate VR experiences that feel like movies.

To watch these, you might need a stand-alone VR headset like the Meta Quest 3 or Vive XR Elite, which have built-in computing power. Some of the more sophisticated VR experiences require what’s known as PCVR (Personal Computer Virtual Reality), driven by a high-end PC with a powerful graphics card connected to a VR headset. All major stand-alone VR headsets can also connect to a computer to interact with PCVR.

Amazing, interactive, cinematic VR experiences

In the same way that movies changed the way we create and interact with still images, VR will impact how all movies are conceived and made. We’re not going too far out on a limb to say that, in some aspects, the future of movies will be participatory.

“Invisible Hours”

Imagine watching your favorite film but being able to follow characters off-screen and make decisions about which parts of the plot to follow. This is the basis of the 2017 Virtual Reality game “Invisible Hours” (PCVR only). Its creators, Spanish video game developer Tequila Works, describe it as “not a game, not a movie, but a piece of immersive theatre with many tangled threads.” And it’s true — it’s hard to classify. The experience is exactly one hour long. It unfolds on a small island where a murder has been committed. You arrive with a detective who pulls up in a small boat. As an invisible observer, you can move through the space among the computer-generated actors, and you can also stop, rewind, pause or fast-forward time to piece together all the tangled threads of what’s going on.

Is “Invisible Hours” the most cinematic and well-crafted visual experience you can have in VR? No, but it’s a paradigm shift in the ways that people can experience movies.

“Lone Echo”

The most cinematic experience you’re likely to have in VR today is Ready at Dawn’s “Lone Echo” (2017) and its 2021 sequel, “Lone Echo 2” (PCVR only). In these games, you embody a robot named Echo One, whose duties involve helping your human captain on a routine mining expedition on the beautiful rings of Saturn.

You might say, “Wait, this isn’t a movie; it’s a video game, right?” Technically, yes. However, “Lone Echo” is incredibly cinematic. Every frame is stunning, and as you progress through the story, you’ll often find yourself pausing to admire and interact with the scenery. “Lone Echo” gives you plenty of time to stop and look. There are no time limits. Exploratory dalliances are, if not encouraged, well tolerated. At the same time, Ready at Dawn didn’t skimp on the storyline. The plot by Ru Weerasuriya and Cory Lanham is incredibly engaging and worthy of a blockbuster science fiction film.

“Lone Echo” (2017)

A screen capture from “Lone Echo” shows you (the robot Echo One) assisting Dr. Olivia Rhodes with exterior maintenance of the ship after a strange space anomaly (seen in the background) appears and damages your vehicle. The exterior scenes present the vastness of space in a way that even Stanley Kubrick couldn’t dream of.

“Okay, okay,” you might say, “that sounds fabulous, but I don’t want to participate in a movie. I’m feeling lazy. All I want to do is lay back and be entertained.” Well, there’s still exciting content for you.

Passive 360-degree videos

In 360-degree video, resolution matters much more than in flat video. While you can watch a 720p DVD on your 4K television and still enjoy it, low-resolution 360-degree video is immediately noticeable. It significantly degrades the experience. In this case, low resolution means 4K and below. The most spectacular waterfall in the world looks unimpressive in a 2K 360-degree video, with all those pixels spread out over 360 degrees instead of a small rectangle in front of you. So, for all of these videos, watch them in the highest resolution possible.

“The Soloist VR” (standalone VR or PCVR, available on the Meta Quest TV app)

This is an outstanding immersive film about Alex Honnold, the free-climber featured in the Oscar-winning documentary “Free Solo.” In this experience, filmmaker Jonathan Griffith uses 360 video to great effect. The film places you in incredibly beautiful and terrifying positions high up the sides of mountains. You watch this amazing athlete climb seemingly sheer rock faces without ropes or tools. Every second of the climbing sequence feels like you’re about to witness someone fall half a mile to his death.

“Is this the future of storytelling or just a dangerous boondoggle?” asks director Renan Ozturk in the behind-the-scenes featurette about making “The Soloist VR.” The three-part behind-the-scenes series, which you can find at The Soloist VR, is worth watching. It shows the lengths the crew goes to get their heavy 360-degree video equipment into outrageous places.

This is 360 video done right.

The Soloist VR
“The Soloist VR” (2022)

“Agent Emmerson”

While it’s available only as a Steam app (PCVR only), “Agent Emerson” is pure 360 video. It’s also a nice proof-of-concept melding 360-degree video and animation. The experience puts you in the head of a first-person action story. You see through the eyes of agent David Emerson, who is part of some strange military training exercise. You’re thrown from the sky and put into dangerous situations, all while never quite working out who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy. “Agent Emerson” is a movie from start to finish. You have no influence on what happens; you take part in fights but can’t affect them. Some of the 3D is primitive and glitchy, especially up close, but if you look at it as a proof of concept, it’s not so bad.

“The Limit”

If you liked “Agent Emerson,” you’ll love seeing what a true Hollywood titan like Robert Rodriguez (“Desperado” (1995), “Sin City” (2005)) can do with immersive toys. “The Limit” uses 180 stereo rather than 360, meaning you can look left and right a bit but not behind you. This provides a better 3D experience and a more director-driven story. Rodriguez always controls what you’re seeing. The film stars action hero Michelle Rodriguez (“Fast & Furious” franchise, “Machete” (2010)), who knows her way around a fight scene, and “The Walking Dead” veteran Norman Reedus, in a fast-paced first-person adventure filled with car chases, explosions and gunfights, all with you as the main character. “The Limit” debuted in 2018, and the technology is showing its age in terms of resolution. Still, it’s a terrific proof of concept of what filmmaking in a VR headset might be if Hollywood puts its mind to it.

“The Limit” (2018)

Is driving the get-away car while Michelle Rodriguez takes out bad guys while hanging onto the side of your ride your idea of a good time? If so, “The Limit” might be for you.

True VR experiences

This may sound like an oxymoron, but “true virtual reality” — CGI-rendered objects that change perspective when you move your head, as opposed to 360-degree video which only presents the exact same perspective — is a whole extra dimension. Some of these experiences are passive, playing the same way through every time. Others have an active element, allowing you to subtly affect the outcome of the story. In these, you are a participant.

“Wolves in the Walls” (Standalone or PCVR)

Based on the award-winning book by Neil Gaiman (full disclosure: I, the author of this article, have worked on multiple books with him and think he’s pretty awesome), this VR experience is a cross between a movie and an immersive theatrical performance. You interact with the character in the story, and she remembers things you’ve done, which affect her storyline.

“VR remains the most emotionally connective medium that I have had the pleasure to work in,” said Pete Billington, director of “Wolves in the Walls,” on Meta’s website.

“Wolves in the Walls” took home the 2019 Emmy for Outstanding Innovation in Interactive Media.

“Arden’s Wake” (PCVR only)

“Arden’s Wake” (2017) is a short VR film with incredible depth and emotional impact. It stars the voice of Hollywood’s Richard Armitage and follows a young woman on a voyage of discovery to find the father who saved her and destroyed her family.

“Paper Birds” Part I and II (PCVR only)

“Paper Birds” (2021) is a beautiful animated short (about 30 minutes total) by animation house 3dar ( about a young accordion player and his family. The story is set in a mythical town and the VR aspect invites you to move around, get close to the action and watch the characters up close.

Want to make your own?

The easiest way to get into immersive filmmaking is with a 360-degree video camera. Many consumer models in the $500 range allow you to easily capture events from all angles at once. These can be played back in a VR headset like Meta’s popular Quest 3. Even if it’s not interactive, it can be an incredibly exciting way to re-experience important moments.

Animated VR experiences are almost all made with either Unity or the Unreal Engine, so check those out if animation is your thing.

If you want to showcase your creation, the Cannes Film Festival has an Immersive category if you’re thinking big. Since 2018, immersive filmmaker Georgy Molodotsov has been compiling a list of immersive film festivals around the world. You can find that here.

Contributing authors to this article include: Kyle Cassidy and Stephen Mandel Joseph

Kyle Cassidy
Kyle Cassidy
Kyle Cassidy is a professional filmmaker, photographer and writer.

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