by Martyn Wendell Jones
A handful of dancers, a flower in the breeze, an approaching train; the earliest cinematic images have a directness about them that precedes style. Simple depiction in film was enough to keep a 19th-century crowd in a thrall. Here was the magic of motion, pictures reaching into life. The first accomplishment in this new medium was stenography.
Four rows of seats comprise the front section of a Scotiabank Theater room in Toronto outfitted for Barco Escape, the continuous three-screen format making a slow debut in cities around North America. In a time of anxieties about the potential of streaming services to undercut traditional theater patronage, Barco is intended to offer audiences a new movie experience unique to brick-and-mortar cinema.
“Okay, everyone, so let’s hold our drinks behind our backs, okay,” the photographer says. Hiding their beers, a group of young professionals is huddling in front of a commercial backdrop to have red carpet-style pictures taken before the premiere of sci-fi thriller The Recall, whose star Wesley Snipes is giving an interview 50 feet down the hall. They enter the theater and claim half a row in the front section, the only one that hasn’t yet filled up. “Oh, wow,” one man says, leaning back in his fourth-row seat to take in the array of screens above him. In this part of the room, it will prove impossible to see all the information being presented in Barco without turning one’s whole body to face each screen.
The Recall opens like an episode of the hit 1990s conspiracy drama The X-Files: a crew doing maintenance on a space station encounters an alien presence that scrambles their communications and throws them into paroxysms of pain. Title screen—then a jump cut throws us back to Earth, where five 20-something friends are leaving the city for a short vacation at a cabin in the woods.
With our characters assembled and their jeep in motion on a dirt road up a forested mountain, Barco engages. The image widens to full panorama, with hundreds of trees passing through the window of each wing screen. “Oh, my God,” the man says, arching halfway out of his seat. “I am obsessed with this. Oh, my God.” Like the gently bobbing flower at the dawn of cinema, this slow-moving car provides the uncomplicated basis for a formal experiment.
The Recall is the first feature-length film to be shot natively in Barco, with tri-screen footage accounting for roughly 30 percent of the total runtime. A 12-minute VR version of the film replaces one of the characters with a 360-degree camera. There is also a standard 2D version, slated for release after a short, Barco-only run.
The Hunter, as Wesley Snipes’s character is known, lives alone in the woods in a cabin full of mounted deer heads, bear traps, antique vials, and weapons. His earlier alien encounter and abduction left him covered in 3D tattoos and possessed of telekinetic abilities. When the creatures land on earth to harvest a new crop of humans, the Hunter plans for revenge.
The young friends on vacation, alas, are hapless and bumbling prey to the extraterrestrials, in spite of the Hunter’s attempts to protect them. This does not keep them from expositing their personal lives to one another in the midst of their peril, however. One tousled blonde man reveals why he’s been ignoring the advances of his female companion. It’s not because he has a girlfriend, as his companion initially suspects. It’s not even because his girlfriend died, as his companion discovers.
Rather, it’s because he was driving his girlfriend back from where he proposed to her when he crashed and rolled the car. His companion looks on sympathetically as the flashback begins: his girlfriend was pinned underneath on the passenger side when the fire began. He couldn’t get her out. The car exploded and she died, but not before screaming at length on account of being on fire.
The audience laughs forcefully at this revelation, and some lean in to one another to whisper gibes. Having twisted in their seats to get a look at the different screens, many of the people in the front section of the theater appear liberated from the conventions of normal cinema attendance, and speak and move more freely than they would during a normal 2D movie. Few seem to mind the added motion and noise.
After a dip in the hot tub, the friends are menaced in their cabin by a brain-sphere dragging languorous tentacles through the air. Traditional grey alien hominids are also lurking about the house. Scared, one of the friends gets his gun from the car and shoots his girlfriend in the dark. Banality ensues:
“What did you do?”
“Don’t do this to me.”
“Breathe, baby, please.”
“No, no, no!”
But the writing, so grimly stuffed with cliché, also makes overtures of a fetching sort of self-awareness:
“What are you thinking about?”
“Well, my best friend is dead, and Rob basically got sucked up into the sky, so.”
“Yeah, I know.”
The laughs are real, and come from an audience that bends and contorts each time the wing screens light up during Barco footage. When the friends enter the Hunter’s cabin, the three screens split into a primary shot bordered with static shots of the contents of his shelves and walls. Both faces remain centrally visible in bordering screens during a tense conversation, and an anxious trek through the woods gives the audience a point-of-view shot plus a menacing periphery.
Old bottles and trees: These simple forays into Barco recall those early experiments in motion pictures. The three-screen shot of a car ascending a hill, transfixing as it was, brings to mind the miracle of our ability to re-create experience. Of course, the point at which visual data itself becomes fascinating is the point at which philosophy begins. Here is one of the most basic sources of wonder: the fact of sight itself, which gives us a family of metaphors for knowledge and the unity of experience.
No one can say whether Barco will remain a gimmick, or will instead become an auteur’s finely-edged tool. (“Rashômon in real time,” one person would later suggest as a possibility for the format.) Locally, however, its effect becomes clear. “Shitty movie,” one audience member says after the lights come back up, “but I had a fucking blast.”
Martyn Wendell Jones has written for Books & Culture, The Puritan, Open Letters Monthly, and numerous other publications.