Lights, Camera, Audience Interaction

edmund.sanders@latimes.com

I've seen the future of cinema. But it went by so fast, I caught only about half of it.

Opening this month at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington is "Vital Space," a high-tech, interactive movie that lets viewers play along and control the plot. The 35-minute flick is sort of an updated version of the 1966 sci-fi adventure "Fantastic Voyage" (younger readers, think Martin Short in "Innerspace"), in which the audience travels inside the human body to diagnose what's ailing a scientist returning from Mars in 2020.

Seated mission-control-style in front of floor-to-ceiling screens and using touch-screen terminals, audience members work in teams to collect information, decide where in the body to travel and figure out how to save the woman's life.

Part movie, part video game, part biology lesson, the fast-paced movie undoubtedly will be a hit with the cyber set. Kids and tourists attending the film's premiere this month gave it an enthusiastic thumbs up.

Although the film's producer, Immersion Studios, foresees the day when all movies and TV shows will be interactive, one wonders whether filmgoers in Peoria are ready for movie multi-tasking. Likewise, the educational benefits--a key attraction to the museum sponsors--seem dubious, though the experience is certainly more fun than dissecting a frog.

The movie opens with Commander Susan Grant, a brainy astronaut working late in the lab studying vials of Martian dirt. A sudden asteroid shower pelts her spaceship and causes the release of an ominous plume of the red dust.

Immediately, Susan is feverish and pale. After quarantining herself, she tells her doltish but devoted partner, John Osborne, to use the spaceship's remote medical diagnostic tool, Vivisys, which sends tiny "nanobots" into her body to figure out what's wrong.

Here's where the action--and interaction--begins to pick up. Do we want to send nanobots to inspect Susan's lungs, stomach or bloodstream? The audience votes for lungs. Yes, that's our final answer.

Suddenly, nanobots are coursing through Susan's air tubes. By touching various images as they flash by on the screen, we can see a quick definition of, say, bronchi. At the same time, Vivisys is bombarding us with the results of various scans and tests and asking us what we want to do next.

But by this point, what most of us are secretly eyeing is the digital scorecard at the bottom of our screens, which clicks off how many points we've earned. A fellow reporter and I have 10,000. Not bad, I think, considering I have no idea what we did to earn them. But next to me, two giggly girls already have 11,500.

Next we vote to explore the heart. Then quickly on to the bloodstream, where a white blood cell (perhaps a descendant of the one that attacked Raquel Welch in "Fantastic Voyage") gobbles up some errant bacteria before chowing down on a hapless nanobot.

Dramatic, sure, but none of this seems to help Susan. In fact, she's slipping. "The patient's vital signs are dropping," Vivisys warns us annoyingly.

Who cares, I think. We're falling further behind. Us: 18,500. Girls: 22,500.

Overcoming my competitive streak, I focus on Susan's worsening moans. Her breathing is labored. My partner and I frantically push buttons and scroll through menus, but to no avail. Who can think under this pressure!

Us: 20,500. Girls: 30,000.

Susan tosses her head back and her chest begins to heave. The music builds. The scene is eerily familiar. Those of us in the audience old enough to remember the original "Alien" begin to squirm, fearful we know what comes next. I close one eye. Sure enough, Vivisys makes the startling announcement: A second heartbeat has been detected! A panicked John prepares to blast the mysterious life form to smithereens.

I won't spoil the ending here. But suffice to say, there's a classic Hollywood plot twist.

The real climax comes shortly thereafter, when we have discovered the actual cause of Susan's sickness. (Wait, when did that happen? Did I miss something?)

No time for questions now. Suddenly, we are faced with a screen full of evil parasites floating around. Here, the movie reverts entirely to a video game as we are asked to kill as many of the creatures as possible by tapping them on the screen with a finger. By now, the entire audience, young and old, is consumed with destroying parasites. My teammate and I get so carried away that we probably also kill a few nanobots.

This ending doubles as a kind of lightning round, in which score laggards have a chance to redeem themselves. But the girls' fingers are too fast. Us: 25,500. Girls: 37,500.

Oh, and as an added bonus, we saved Susan's life. Under an alternate ending--reserved for slacker audiences whose members sit on their hands--Susan's ailment remains a mystery and she has to be rushed back to Earth. (Thanks for nothing!)

I suppose we're lucky she can't die.

In another Immersion Studios film--produced for a Canadian aquarium--audiences that make the wrong decisions end up polluting the ocean and killing fish. Some children left in tears. (But thanks for playing, kids!)

Immersion must have decided that Americans weren't ready for such realism.

After the film ended, I was less embarrassed when it was announced that my rivals, Caroline, 12, and Rachel, 13, had the highest score in the entire auditorium.

The secret of these budding biologists?

"We just kept pressing as many buttons as we could," Rachel revealed. Turns out, the more you interacted, the more points you earned. It mattered less whether you read or understood the material.

Did they learn anything?

"Um . . . I guess," Caroline offered after a long pause. "I learned what our bodies look like inside."

So what was Susan's ailment?

The score champs furrow their eyebrows and look at one another. They shrug.

Of course, I can't fault them. I don't have a clue either. They must have explained that part while we were zapping microbes.

Times staff writer Edmund Sanders covers AOL Time Warner and technology policy in Washington.

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