So much of the Alien mythos boils down to a single scene. Even if you haven’t seen the original, you know the beats: a casual meal interrupted by the victim’s sudden collapse. There’s confusion, then dread, some crunching sounds, then a tiny alien popping out of the victim’s chest, accompanied by an insane amount of gore.
It’s rightfully iconic, and judging by the reaction to this week’s VR version, much of the Verge staff is still traumatized by it. When the question came up — who wants to try out a VR thing where you’re an alien bursting out of someone’s chest? — there were surprisingly few takers.
But, well, here I am.
It’s called Alien: Covenant In Utero, released on the Oculus Rift and Gear VR yesterday and trickling out to the HTC Vive, Google Daydream, and Playstation VR on May 10th. It’s meant to drum up interest in the upcoming Alien movie (also out on the 10th) — but it also lets the filmmakers try out an interesting twist on the classic chest-burster scenario. This time, you’re doing the bursting: you start out in a dark, starry void, which slowly resolves as the inside of a person’s thorax. You wake up, hear a little bit of commotion outside the body, and slowly flex your claws before tearing out of the body and trying to kill everything in sight.
It’s an interesting idea, and it plays particularly well with the quirks of virtual reality. It’s a strange feeling to look down and see an alien body — your body. You really do feel trapped in the fleshy chest cavity, and it’s both terrifying and strangely relieving to finally claw your way out. There’s also no interactivity here — it’s a 360 video, not a game — which only enhances the dread. You know what’s coming; all you can do is watch as it happens.
In Utero also hits some of the limits of current virtual reality setups. Watching In Utero through the Oculus video stream on a Gear VR, there were visible compression artifacts during portions of the video, while others had to pause midstream for buffering. That’s more of a Wi-Fi problem than a Gear VR problem, but unless you’re using a wired Ethernet cable, it’s likely to be an issue. It was a particular problem in the post-bursting section of the video, when it was difficult to distinguish some of the “alien vision” effects from pixelation problems.
The saving grace turns out to be sound design. There’s another woman in the room while all of this is going on, and as the xenomorph wakes up, you can hear her banging on the door and pleading to be let out. (It might be the same scene you see around 1:40 of the recent trailer, although it’s hard to be sure.) The noise is muffled at first — you’re hearing it through someone’s sternum, after all — but it gets clearer as you clamber out and her cries get more urgent. Even when I was thrown off by the visual problems, that sound kept me locked into the story.
The whole experience is over and done in about three minutes, which is about as long as it should be. The point here isn’t to give you any new empathy or insight into the xenomorphy experience — it’s to scare the crap out of you, and hopefully convince you to buy a movie ticket next month. On the first count, at least, it certainly worked for me.