Inside Alejandro González Iñárritu's VR Masterpiece

Emmanuel Lubekzi

Oscar-winning director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Carne y Arena—a total immersion in the hearts of undocumented migrants—shows the potential of a brand-new art form.

A line of weary people is moving toward me, lit by the first rays of dawn across the parched Sonoran Desert. An old woman sinks exhausted to the ground, her thin shoes lacerated by the same cold, gritty sand that I can feel under my bare feet. I walk up to a “coyote,” or people smuggler, just in time to hear him hiss, “Where are you?” into his mobile phone. There are children too...but as I bend to get a better look at one, a helicopter swoops down, blinding me with its searchlight. All of a sudden we’re surrounded by U.S. border guards brandishing weapons and barking orders. “Get down! Now.” Those around me obey, and my knees begin to flex before I will myself to stop. After all, this isn’t really happening to me. I’m just a spectator wearing an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. Right?

In the uncannily real world created by Alejandro González Iñárritu in Carne y Arena (Flesh and Sand), it’s difficult to be sure. Produced and financed by Legendary Entertainment and Fondazione Prada, the Oscar-winning film director’s new work was created with the help of Industrial Light & Magic’s immersive-experience lab, ILMxLAB, and shot by the Mexican director’s longtime collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki, aka Chivo. It debuted in a reduced version at the Cannes Film Festival in May before opening in June at the Fondazione Prada in Milan, where it will be until January 15, 2018. A U.S. residency at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art will run through September 10. (Prada is offering 250 prebooked slots a week; LACMA can accommodate 180.)

There’s more to Carne y Arena than the “film” or the dark, sand-strewn, hangar-like space where you absorb it barefoot, helped by two spotters who are there to fit the VR visor and prevent you from walking into a wall. The experience begins in a chilly, strip-lit holding pen, its floor scattered with shoes found in the borderland desert. It ends near a genuine section of rusting U.S.-Mexican border wall from Naco, Arizona. Iñárritu has spoken of his hope that those experiencing Carne y Arena will walk “in the immigrants’ feet, under their skin, and into their hearts”—something the installation allows one to do literally, though to reveal how would be a spoiler.

Carne y Arena is the latest and most fully realized example of art house VR. Kathryn Bigelow recently codirected a VR documentary short for National Geographic about a day in the life of a Congolese park ranger. Filmmakers, including Steven Spielberg, Laurie Anderson, and Jia Zhangke, are developing or have recently wrapped VR projects. And in March, the Venice Film Festival announced that it would launch a competitive VR film section at its 2017 event (August 30–September 9), making it the first major international film festival to do so. Unlike 3-D, VR is not so much an extension of cinema as a reproducible form of immersive theater. Festival head Alberto Barbera says that, far from killing cinema, VR may turn out to be “something else entirely, which will develop in ways we can’t predict right now.”

After emerging, wide-eyed and stirred, from Carne y Arena, I had a child’s desire to do it again. As it was a quiet press preview day, I got to do just that. But even the second time around wasn’t enough. I kept thinking of other routes I might have taken, parts of the narrative I had maybe failed to grasp. Rather than being spoon-fed the dramatic arc, I was experiencing the narrative in urgent fragments. This was what fascinated me most about Iñárritu’s four-year labor of love: the curious sensation of being inside a story.