Sam Brooks reviews a new immersive film experience at Auckland’s planetarium.
Journalists get invited to review things all the time. Books, films, shows, exhibitions, all of it. I say yes to a lot of them and “no, sorry” to a bit more. Very rarely do I go, “Absolutely I need to see this and review this.” When I got the invite for XYZZY (pronounced “zizzy”), an immersive film playing at the Stardome across December, I went “hell yes”.
The film itself, made by NZ-born, NYC-based contemporary artist Jess Johnson and Dunedin-based animator Simon Ward, was only part of the appeal. Most of the draw was that the Stardome, Auckland’s observatory/planetarium is just really, really awesome. It’s space! Right in front of your face! What’s more awesome than that?
Thankfully, the film lives up to the venue.
XYZZY, which premiered at the Otago Museum and sold out 14 sessions in its Melbourne showing, is a trip. It has a barely detectable narrative – viewers travel through generated, impressionistic worlds where patterns repeat themselves over and over – and so it mostly feels like a vehicle to switch off from the real world for 50 minutes and be plunged into the worlds of Johnson and Ward. Johnson’s compositions – which include disconcerting flesh sculptures, fuzzy worms, and Harlequin-esque figures – are animated into circular, rotating patterns. It is, for want of a better phrase, buzzy as hell.
It’s also beautifully meditative. A late “movement” (movement is the word I’m settling on; “scenes” or “segments” don’t feel right) involves the large, Harlequin-esque figures picking up the screen and moving it around, which is a bit of a departure, but otherwise it feels akin to what I assume being in a spaceship with a viewing platform is like. As you sit, looking up and around at the Stardome’s, well, dome, it feels utterly all-encompassing.
The experience of actually watching the film reminded me of VR without the burden of having to attach yourself to a helmet and also detach yourself from several hundred dollars (XYZZY is a deeply affordable $20). In an age where nearly every screen experience can be scaled down to be watched on a phone, experiencing something designed to be truly immersive – and which literally cannot exist on a flat screen, let alone one you can fit in your hand – is something special.
Your frame of reference for XYZZY will likely depend on your age. I was transported back to the era of mid-90s first person video games, where the physical frame of the computer screen was the limit. Think Doom, Myst, Wolfenstein. It also has elements of 90s screensavers, where worlds seemed to build and then collapse upon themselves.
The music definitely helps evoke that 90s vibe as well. There’s a certain genre that popular YouTuber Brian David Gilbert likes to call “castle chase music” (as in music you would get chased through a castle to), and that is the sort of music that soundtracks XYZZY. The music – by Andrew Clarke, Luke Rowell, Stef Animal and Lachlan Anderson – stops the film from ever putting you to sleep; it’s meditative without being tranquilising.
When I compare the film to a screensaver, the comparison is less to diminish the quality of film (and perhaps to uplift the quality of the amazing screensavers we had back in the 90s) but to recall those meditative afternoons where I would simply let the mouse sit idle and wait for a gorgeous, generative experience to appear, seemingly out of nowhere.
In 2023, the phrase “this was generated by AI” is well overused, and while XYZZY is clearly computer generated, the actual quality of Johnson’s art, though strange and cold, feels disarmingly human. The worms are fluffy, the flesh is smooth, the caverns hauntingly womb-like. Similarly, Ward’s animations are clearly made with that same “alien but familiar” intention, most notably in a sequence where legs attached to cereal boxes march back and forth across the screen, each row with their own distinct animation. Although the look is alien, the intention feels remarkably, thankfully, human.
It feels as though the world of XYZZY is unfurling before you, which is helped along by some pretty literal unfurling of flesh and hallucinogenic patterns. There is meaning there, but just like my references are deeply my own, the point seems to be to draw meaning out of the experience, rather than the individual images.
In saying that, the meaning feels inconsequential compared to the feeling of it all. To be sitting in a (comfortable!) chair and looking up as seemingly endless generative worlds coast past you, or you coast through them, feels like putting the world on 0.3x speed for a bit. By the time its 50-minute running time has elapsed, any amount of time could have passed, really. That sort of warping of time (and appropriately, space!) is a rare experience outside of the world of mind-expanding substances. For the rest of us, there’s XYZZY.
XYZZY plays at the Stardome on various dates throughout December. You can book tickets here.