Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special-event releases. We’re currently reporting from the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.
Two-year-old virtual reality studio Penrose has developed a remarkably distinctive aesthetic in its short life. Its first two pieces, loosely adapted from The Little Prince and Hans Christian Andersen’s "The Little Match Girl," established a diorama-like visual style that made animated characters look real enough to touch, with self-contained environments that floated in mid-air.
Penrose’s third work, Arden’s Wake, is an interesting expansion on this formula. It’s the first piece to not be obviously based on a well-known children’s story, and the first set in a world that envelops viewers instead of floating in the air — in this case, a massive future ocean. There’s no set length yet, but the 15-minute prologue debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival, and it’s now making its way out to the public.
What’s the genre?
What’s it about?
A young woman named Mina and her father live an isolated, ocean-bound life in a distant future. They’re haunted by the memory of Arden, Mina’s mother, who drowned in an event that’s only hinted at in the prologue. Then, on an underwater scavenging trip, Mina’s father disappears. When she goes to rescue him, we learn that their small cabin is built on top of an underwater future Manhattan, and that a fantastical creature is living in its ruins.
Okay, what’s it really about?
Penrose co-founder Eugene Chung describes Arden’s Wake as a coming-of-age story that mirrors the studio’s last piece, Allumette — although Arden’s Wake doesn’t seem as overtly tragic. But as with so much virtual reality art, it’s still primarily an exercise in how to create stories for the medium.
Is it good?
With only the first part available, it’s difficult to judge what the final piece might look like, especially because the prologue ends on a cliffhanger. But Arden’s Wake is one of the rare VR films with a premise that could hold up in an older, more sophisticated medium. It feels a little like Scott Synder and Sean Murphy’s comic The Wake, though the titles are unconnected and tonally different — both involve a young woman navigating a flooded world with semi-mythological elements.
Even so, the most interesting thing about Arden’s Wake is its diorama structure. The piece is a simple but effective example of spatial storytelling. You’re given a god’s-eye view of an environment, but each piece of it is like an individual comic panel. The set is small enough that you’re not missing out on pieces of the story, but the setup makes you feel like you’re actively following the plot, playing the role of the camera.
In one scene, for example, you might look outside the house to see a young man serenading Mina with a guitar. Then, you peer up and around to see Mina watching him from a window. The father is hammering away at a wooden bathysphere on the other side of the house, but then he notices what’s going on, and you can follow him across the living room, where he throws a bucket of fish at the suitor.
At some point, you might also sneak a glance below the water, where you can see a slender wooden stalk holding the cabin up — a hint that there’s something dark and strange lurking below the lighthearted antics on the surface. Penrose could do a lot more with this idea, but Arden’s Wake still takes it further than Allumette, which introduced the mechanic.
What should it be rated?
A light PG for its intense and eerie underwater sequences, because the sea is terrifying.
How can I actually watch it?
The Arden’s Wake prologue will be available soon on a variety of VR platforms.