Tom Cruise is on a mission. He doesn’t want us to watch movies. He wants us to experience movies. Though years ago, such a claim may have sounded silly — impossible, even — now his accepted assignment is edging closer to tomorrow. Cruise wants viewers to experience movies just he does, and we may be able to do it — quite possibly, right beside him.
In his latest onscreen adventure, the would-be-franchise-spawning “The Mummy,” Cruise floats weightless through an elaborate mid-air crash sequence. It’s here, in pushing not just for the sequence itself — which was one of the reasons he agreed to make “The Mummy” — but for how it was shot that the future of Tom Cruise became clear.
If he can’t take the audience with him on the flight itself (like he did the entire crew as a barf-inducing wrap gift), then the next best thing to reality is virtual reality. And after experiencing it first-hand, the future of Tom Cruise may very well be in VR.
For decades, Cruise has been trying to bring audiences as close to the action as possible. His post-“Mission Impossible” career has been the movie star equivalent of buzzing the tower in “Top Gun.” Between hanging his multi-million dollar face inches from asphalt while careening down a crowded street, free-climbing the world’s tallest building, and clinging to the side of an airplane as it flies into the stratosphere, the man has been pushing the boundaries of what an actor will risk for his audience.
So it only makes sense that as he continues to find more spectacular stunts to incorporate into his movies that he’d find more accessible ways for the audience to appreciate them.
Enter “The Mummy VR Experience” — an installation that premiered at the 2017 SXSW Film Festival — in which participants climb into the back of the plane, strap on a pair of VR goggles, and fly into the sky with Tom Cruise.
The stunt itself is pretty intriguing. Done with 90 percent practical effects, Cruise, co-star Annabelle Wallis, and crew members led by director Alex Kurtzman climbed aboard the Zero-G Airbus, a plane designed to capture the zero gravity experience by climbing to 20,000 feet and then going into freefall for 20 seconds at a time.
To capture the entire sequence, they climbed and fell 64 times. Read that again: 64 times. That’s 64 weightless takes of Cruise and Wallace orchestrating a physically strenuous choreographed climb through a cargo bay as co-stars floated all around them and the crew moved to avoid hitting anyone (while still capturing the chaos).
And we got to be there.
Well, not really. Only Cruise and his cohorts got to be on the plane, but the VR experience did make it feel like viewers were much closer to the action than a movie, and much more in control of what was seen during the sequence. Move your head one way and there’s Tom, pinned in the corner of the plane waiting to somersault onto the floor. Look down and there’s the cinematographer, pointing his camera up at Tom while another man holds him in place (and protects him from harsh falls). Turn to the right and there’s a gaggle of actors tumbling around like circus performers in space.
With every take, there were new things to look at and new accomplishments to admire. The tech, for example, was top-notch. Five VR cameras in all — three camouflaged Samsung VR cameras hidden around the set, a Nokia OZO used as the A-camera, and a custom GoPro rig affixed to the principal camera — were all operated by a crew trained specifically to shoot in Zero-G.
But for anyone who wanted all Cruise, all the time, you got it. There were segments within the video where Cruise would speak via a standard interview set-up — seated in a chair, talking to someone just to the right of camera. But most of it was inside the plane. You watched, take after take, the actors get into position, wait for zero gravity to kick in, and then rush to perform the sequence.
Cruise would giggle like a kid on Christmas at the end of most “parabolas,” as the weightless sessions were called, and his intensity during the stunt was hard to match. That meant you were right there with the Tom Cruise character while the scene was playing out, and you were with Tom Cruise the movie star when it ended. You got to shoot a scene with Tom Cruise! You got to live the action!
Now, it wasn’t all perfect. The heavily touted chairs — Positron Voyagers with guided 360-degree motion control, head-tracked 3D audio, and haptic integration — didn’t feel all that different from when your dad would tilt the kitchen chair back-and-forth while making noises like a rocket ship. It was almost overly controlled, as though the dad operating the controls was a little over-protective, but it certainly didn’t give a sensation of weightlessness.
The visuals took some time to get used to, as well, and there were moments when you were pulled out of the experience by the other VR adventurers. (“Tom! Tom! Where are you, Tom?” shouted a few presumably blind participants.) But the lasting impression was that of wanting to reach out and touch the plane’s hull, the wire netting, and yes, Tom himself.
Cinema asks you to suspend disbelief and go on a visceral ride, either emotionally or physically. Great drama can move you and exciting action can get you up out of your seat. VR has shown it has the ability to make you, against your better judgment, reach out for someone you know isn’t there, hoping to give him a high-five anyway.
With “The Mummy” itself being called “the worst Tom Cruise movie ever,” maybe it’s best he start looking for better outlets for his extreme stunts. The technology is only getting better, so the only question is: Can film’s fastest man keep up?