Virtual reality is as good a place as any to meet people, especially during a pandemic. In documentary helmer Joe Hunting’s nonjudgmental plunge into the fast-evolving metaverse — set entirely in the realm of VRChat, where thousands of players reinvent themselves behind the avatars of their choice — we meet couples who fell in love online, hard-of-hearing outsiders who find a new way to connect with others and lonely souls who say their online friends saved their lives. While the real world was losing its collective mind (Hunting started “filming” in December 2020), these folks were giving lap dances and house parties in cyberspace.
At times, “We Met in Virtual Reality” — which world premiered at the (virtual) Sundance Film Festival last January, and now finds its way into (virtual) release via HBO Max — feels like a feature-length infomercial for this relatively new means of no-contact connection. Except that VR has been around for years and years, and Hunting’s upbeat take on how “you can be who you’ve always wanted to be” seems more than a little Pollyannaish.
If anything, I expected virtual reality to look more real and a lot less virtual. Turns out VRChat is full of glitchy bugs. Full-body tracking gives users more control over how their avatars move, while instantly rendered animation struggles to keep up (props float, CG bodies break every time they budge and an in-world kiss looks as convincing as a pair of plastic Barbies mashed together). VRChat hurts the eyes, but presumably not the imagination, as folks who’ve always wanted to look like Gizmo from “Gremlins,” a blue-eyed devil hunk or an adolescent anime character with an upskirt fetish can live their dreams.
It’s doubtful the doc will earn the technology any converts, though those who’ve spent any amount of time doing VR will likely excuse the herky-jerky visuals. (It’s not as rudimentary as Club Penguin or Minecraft, but a far cry from “Ready Player One” or the dazzling world depicted in last year’s “Belle.”) The movie makes the case that virtual reality can be an ideal place for people uncomfortable with who they are IRL. Except, Hunting never shows the users behind these avatars, embracing their chosen identities the way progressives honor others’ pronouns.
Those troubled by that could find it tough bending their brains around the kinds of relationships depicted here, like the shy guy (Toaster, who spent two years on mute, hanging out silently on countertops) with a borderline-obsessive crush on virtual belly dancing instructor DustBunny. There’s an advantage to “not being able to touch or feel the person that you love,” a pink-haired cartoon character insists. “You fall in love purely with their personality.” It’s not the newest idea in the world (see “Cyrano de Bergerac” or the 1-900 industry for analog examples), but Hunting presents such concepts as if they’re being thunk for the very first time.
The whole package is good news for Mark Zuckerberg, Meta and Web 3.0, as it offers a sampling of positive encounters that can come from creating virtual spaces — which here range from a driving simulator to an immersive tour through Jurassic Park. At a time when users were obliged to social distance, the appeal of such activities practically goes without saying. But what of the downsides: the people who retreat into VR to avoid the real world, the way real money exchanges hands and the many cases in which users misrepresent themselves (as opposed to offering a more genuine side of their personalities)?
Hunting leaves such inquiries for other journalists or filmmakers to explore. “We Met in Virtual Reality” is a warmhearted, often humorous look at the sociology of such spaces. It can’t really be described as vérité — more fly-on-the-virtual-wall filmmaking. The environments already look dated, as do many of the avatar designs (like the one who looks and sounds like Kermit the Frog), though there’s no denying the creativity many have put into their virtual identities.
VR technology will only continue to improve, until such time that we’re taking the out-there arguments of Rodney Ascher’s more philosophically minded “A Glitch in the Matrix” seriously. But Hunting seems drawn to the lo-fi charm of the scenes he captures here, as if to reinforce that appearances shouldn’t matter in a realm where people are essentially trying to escape the way they look and feel IRL. To some, such behavior may seem like evidence of a mental disorder. But what are movies, if not a passive version of the same dynamic? Maybe these actual-reality outsiders aren’t so weird after all.