It sounds strange to call a 40-minute film “possibly the longest virtual reality movie ever made,” but it’s true. Miyubi, released by prolific VR studio Felix & Paul, is twice or even three times as long as the vast majority of cinematic VR experiences. It’s not a documentary, experimental art, a sponsored tie-in, or yet another family-friendly cartoon. It’s a scripted comedy — not a genre VR is known for.
Miyubi was conceived by Felix & Paul and written with the help of Funny or Die. It’s set in the 1980s and puts viewers in the body of a Japanese robot that share’s the project’s name. When a businessman buys Miyubi as a Christmas present for his son, it gives us an intimate — albeit temporary — window into a loving but troubled family.
What’s the genre?
Kitschy ‘80s dramedy.
What’s it about?
One year in the “life” of Miyubi, a Japanese toy robot given to an American child (Owen Vaccaro) for Christmas in 1982.
Okay, what’s it really about?
Obsolescence. Miyubi isn’t built to last, and his capabilities are quickly surpassed by a new generation of robots. His fate is mirrored by the boy’s grandfather (played by character actor Richard Riehle), whose deteriorating mental state is a source of stress in an already tense household. The specter of 1980s industrial automation looms in the background, making even a toy like Miyubi seem a little threatening.
Miyubi’s story actually becomes even weirder and more complicated when you factor in an unlockable hidden scene, which opens up possibilities that are never really explored. (Without giving too much away, it stars Jeff Goldblum as Miyubi’s creator, and it reveals a second, even more hidden scene.)
But is it good?
Like a lot of virtual reality film, Miyubi has a bit of that tentative “Wait, can we do that?” feel to it. The script is a mix of serious, modern-feeling dramedy and self-consciously corny sitcom gags, which sometimes feels like a cop-out. And a simple interactive element — a hidden-object game that unlocks an important secret scene — feels like it could be too obscure for many viewers to catch.
That said, there’s a clear, mature narrative arc to Miyubi that’s still uncommon to find in the medium. While less than half the length of a feature film, Miyubi asks viewers to spend a long time in a headset, following multiple mini-plotlines involving each member of the family. It keeps the pace brisk with brief, self-contained chapters, each one ending with Miyubi rebooting.
In addition to worries about machines, Miyubi touches on America’s 1980s anxiety over Japan; the family patriarch (Wolf of Wall Street’s P.J. Byrne) leaves for long stretches on corporate business trips to the island nation, bringing back cheap novelty gadgets to compensate. A lot of the jokes come from characters comically overreacting to both these fears and treating Miyubi as a serious adversary, instead of a talking calculator — especially the grandfather, a World War II veteran who goes from claiming the robot is a weapon “sent by Hirohito” to grudgingly identifying with Miyubi’s slow decay. He’s by far the hammiest character in the movie, but at times, he’s also the most effective.
Even during the script’s most cliché moments, the 360-degree format gives Miyubi a welcome naturalistic feel. There’s usually a single visual focus for each scene, but you’re encouraged to let your eyes wander over stray details around the room. Often, the designers use this extra set space as an opportunity to amp up the pop culture references, including nods to Battlestar Galactica, The Thing, and He-Man. But it’s also a way for VR film to adopt the environmental storytelling techniques that games have perfected over the past couple of decades. Showing us the sedimentary layers of toys in a bedroom hints at Miyubi’s fleeting popularity, and the family’s hideously gelatin-heavy Thanksgiving spread drives home its generational disconnects.
One day, we might still look back on Miyubi as a rough and early example of VR film. But it represents a clean break with the “immersion for immersion’s sake” mold where virtual reality film started, and points a way forward for work to come.
What emotions are involved here?
Nostalgia, sympathy, and whatever the portmanteau German word is for “the satisfaction of unexpectedly encountering a Jeff Goldblum cameo.”
How can I actually watch it?
As an Oculus production, Miyubi will be available on Oculus Rift and Gear VR, likely sometime in February or March.