Sundance and tech: Like a trip into 'Black Mirror'

Digital Media

by Joan E. Solsman January 19, 2017 5:00 AM PST @joan_e

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No need to hunt for the geeky pockets at Sundance -- they're front and center this year.

The Sundance Film Festival kicks off Thursday night in Park City, Utah, with a science-based call to arms as its opening-night movie. "An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power," revisits the crusade against climate change a decade after "An Inconvenient Truth" became one of the highest-grossing documentaries of all time, winning two Oscars and helping usher Al Gore to a Nobel prize.

The film is one of myriad projects at Sundance this year touching on science or sci-fi, underscoring the growing influence of technology on the independent film festival. It's not just the tech on screen either. Digital players like Netflix and Amazon are more present than ever before, while its organizers have widened their embrace of virtual reality.

Plus, a handful of films probing tech-based questions makes part of the slate feel like a season recap of "Black Mirror."

Technological reality

The Sundance program dedicated to interactive, high-tech storytelling, called "New Frontier," is bigger this year, with more than two dozen projects that have widened to two separate sites in Park City.

In some cases, the technology presented at the festival leapfrogs the movies fictionalizing it. "Synesthesia Suit: Rez Infinite and Crystal Vibes," a Japanese VR experience, puts viewers in a full-body, 26-sensor get-up that combines audiovisual effects and tactile vibrations. A curator of the exhibit said the tech mimics what Steven Spielberg depicts in next year's movie "Ready Player One," before the sci-fi flick about the tech comes out.

Other VR projects push at the limits that virtual-reality storytelling has bumped up against in its recent explosion. "Miyubi," from Felix & Paul Studios, has a 40-minute run-time, stretching the duration of a format that usually clocks in at about five to 10 minutes. "Life of Us," by the company Within and featuring music by Pharrell Williams, is a shared VR story that viewers experience with two other people they meet and speak to as avatars. Multiplayer virtual reality is still uncommon, even in outright games.

And then there are the projects that just sound fun. "Mindshow" lets you make your own VR cartoons using your body and voice, acting out your own parts in a socially sharable clip.

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Even if you aren't braving the snow and crowds of Park City, the wave of VR hardware releases last year sets up wider accessibility for people anywhere to these experiences after they make it through their Sundance premieres.

New players

Movies made by and destined for online-streaming companies have cropped up at more and more at the festival over the last three years.

Last year, subscription video sites Netflix and Amazon made waves as hard-to-beat bidders. Their deep pockets helped them edge out traditional players for the rights to distribute choice projects.

Netflix, for example, bought streaming rights to "Tallulah," a drama starring Ellen Page, for a reported $5 million and "The Fundamentals of Caring," a road-trip story starring Paul Rudd and Selena Gomez, for a reported $7 million. Amazon also acquired the digital rights to "Manchester by the Sea," a drama generating Oscar buzz.

Already, one of the first buys of Sundance -- announced Tuesday before the festival even begins -- was by Amazon, for the Grateful Dead documentary "Long Strange Trip" making its worldwide debut at the festival. Both Netflix and Amazon have films or collections of episodes premiering at the fest.

Other digital natives are raising their profiles there too. YouTube is has one of its first Sundance premieres since the launch of its subscription service Red kicked off its own original content effort in earnest. "This Is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous" is a documentary about the YouTube star of its title, tracking her transgender transition.

Dystopian visions

Even among the conventional movies most likely to run their course in traditional cinemas, tech-heavy plots are sprinkled throughout the festival.

Two films at the fest explore how technologies raise questions about human minds.

Peter Dinklage literally tries to steal memories in "Rememory." The "Game of Thrones" star shows up at the home of a deceased inventor of a machine that records and plays unfiltered memories, and he swipes the device to explore his own past.

In "Marjorie Prime," the 86-year-old title character spends her final days with a robot replica of her deceased husband, played by "Mad Men" star Jon Hamm. The film raises questions about how people mentally reconstruct the past and what they choose to forget.

Documentaries take on a laundry list of tech topics:

The first public Wi-Fi in Cuban parksA director with ALS who directed his first feature film with only his eyes A woman using Skype to find answers about her chronic fatigue syndrome, a disease some believe is all in one's head The successful revenge campaign by Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel to bury online publisher GawkerThe programmers who founded a Dark Wallet, an app to store and transfer digital currency bitcoin

Check back with CNET for more from Sundance.

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