The Sundance Film Festival has long included documentaries that tackle hot button issues, but this year some of those films included virtual reality companion pieces in the New Frontier section. In addition to longstanding issues regarding technical, ethical and narrative complexities of telling stories with new technologies, these VR additions raised serious questions about the capacity for the medium as an agent of change.
Environmental issues were at the forefront of this year’s festival, and two of the most prominent climate documentaries, “An Inconvenient Sequel” and “Chasing Coral,” presented VR shorts as well. “An Inconvenient Sequel” shows how grave the climate change crisis has become since Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” debuted a decade ago. In the companion piece, “Melting Ice,” Gore and the film’s creator Danfung Dennis take us on a 360-degree tour of how rising temperatures have wreaked havoc on the climate of Greenland.
The VR short opens with the viewer peering up as Gore’s small plane noisily descends onto the barren white landscape. After observing a brief conversation between him and the scientist stationed there, who explains how dire the situation of melting ice sheets and rising sea levels has become, the film mostly dispenses with any narrative. The viewer is instead placed below collapsing glaciers, alongside gushing muddy rivers and inside boats languidly paddling through bodies of water strewn with ice melt detritus. The long, uninterrupted shots of the expansive landscape are beautifully rendered — so much so that, were it not for the intermittent voice-over narration by Gore warning of an imminent climate refugee crisis, the film might feel like a well-executed tourist video, rather than environmental horror tale.