“When the sun got tired of the humans it decided to hide and never rise again. The darkness awoke the dead from their graves. A zombie kid called Gloomy and a mortal girl called Nena fall in love and immerse in a deep connection.”
If you saw Corpse Bride and thought, ‘Hey, I want to go to there’ then Gloomy Eyes is the immersive experience you’ve craved. A VR short film, created using the Unity 3D engine, it makes a brave attempt at unearthing the potential a VR headset can offer to film makers.
European folklore is the inspiration here, recounting the tale of two soul mates in a manner both literally and figuratively dark. Gloomy and Nena are star-crossed lovers in a universe where the star in question — the sun — has left us. A giant, god-like humanoid of wicker and woe, the sun loves our protagonists and feels ineffable pain at their separation. He, along with Nena’s pet dog, are compassionate and determined to help the two lovers achieve a life together.
Opposition to this romance comes in the form of Nena’s guardian uncle, a demagogue who preaches to the town about the terrors of the returned dead. He does have a point, as Gloomy himself remains an ambiguous figure who’s loving towards Nena, but capable of violent outbursts he can barely contain.
Narration duties are in the hands of Colin Farrell, who does an excellent job in conveying the melancholy subject matter, always commanding your attention but without intruding on the action. Said action is played-out on a constantly-changing diorama, with a design straddling Laika studios’ Coraline and Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas.
The added tweak of being able to ‘push in’ to the action by the viewer physically moving closer to the diorama adds a further dimension to the events, though, and is a clever way of intensifying scenes. It’s more akin to a play where the performers weave their way through the audience than it is a static, cinematic affair.
Turning your head and body as the scenes emerge in and around you, and having your eye-line drawn by tricks of lighting and motion, allows the story to develop in 360 degrees. It’s a complete delight. Rollercoaster tracks pirouette around your body, characters slide down snowy hills directly into your face and you can take an omniscient view of clandestine meetings from the rafters of rickety buildings.
Experimental art will always have some flaws; that’s just the nature of the beast. For me, the story felt as though interaction would have added to the experience. I itched to control Gloomy and Nena much as I did Quill the mouse in Moss or Louis in Ghost Giant: charming narrative titles that also insert you into the tale.
(The following paragraph contains plot SPOILERS)
Aside from the directorial effort, Gloomy Eyes’s bleakness is a bitter pill to swallow. Nena’s ostracization and Gloomy’s outsider status pronounce that you can only be part of a broken society for so long before having to leave it to its own bitter demise. It would be pleasant to think our heroes being carried away by a disappearing sun was anything other than a strange kind of apocalyptic cynicism, but I rather think that’s a false hope. Ending things in such a desolate fashion is a completely valid choice in fiction but genuinely hurts, here.
Gloomy Eyes is a beautiful presentation with some authentically mesmerizing moments, of this there’s no doubt, and the choice to tell the story in VR was inspired. It leaves you musing on how much more impressive the likes of ParaNorman or Kubo and the Two Strings could be if you the viewer were a physical component of the story, not a distanced observer.
I’m not sure how inspired the story itself is, though. The oft-told tale of loving the forbidden outsider is a staple of fantasy fiction, whether it’s Edward Scissorhands, Frankenstein, or Shakespeare’s original tale of doomed love, and the potential was there to say something dramatically different. As it goes, Gloomy Eyes is a respectable piece of gothic nihilism. It’s a simple yarn told with a lot of technical sophistication, packing-in several heart-wrenching moments that — thanks to the medium — you can’t look away from.