On the Morning You Wake (to the End of the World): a compelling, utterly immersive VR experience

This 38-minute virtual-reality film – chronicling the 38 minutes in 2018 between the residents of Hawaii receiving a government alert about an incoming ballistic missile, and those residents learning that it was a false alarm – is a remarkable achievement.

17 October 2022

By Ben Nicholson

On the Morning You Wake (to the End of the World) (2022)
Sight and Sound

At 8:07 a.m. on Saturday 13 January 2018, an alert was issued in Hawaii, warning of an incoming ballistic missile. The alert was pushed to smartphones across the US state, warning people to seek shelter, and it wasn’t until 8:45 a.m. that it was identified as a false alarm and residents were released from the fear of impending doom. The immersive virtual reality experience, On the Morning You Wake (to the End of the World), explores the implications and individual responses in those 38 panic-stricken minutes.

Split into three chapters – ‘Take Cover’, ‘The Doomsday Machine’ and ‘Kuleana’ – the 38-minute film is made up of a variety of different audio recollections of the events and what they meant to people from all walks of life, set to illustrative animations. Taking inspiration from Hawaiian culture, the proceedings of that morning are given a mythological framework by the recurring narration of Jamaica Heolimeleikalani Osorio, a Kanaka Maoli artist and scholar, who places the view of imminent destruction within a cycle of formation and annihilation. Her lonely row out into the ocean at the end of ‘Take Cover’, awaiting the end of the world, is a remarkably powerful and moving moment of poignant acceptance. Other residents recount the minute-by-minute pressures, from racing down a highway to get home, to parents forcing their children down into storm drains in the hope of avoiding the imminent blast.

The film has also been screened around the globe in a conventional single-screen documentary format. This might suggest that the VR has little role to play if the same film and structure can be observed on a flat screen, but the filmmakers have excelled in creating moments of utter immersion in the VR experience. In some instances, this is being able to follow the eyes of characters as they gaze up into the sky in fear; in others it is being positioned behind people as they watch the sunrise – adopting their position.

One of the most compelling elements comes from the slightly cartoony animation that incorporates images composed of thousands of coloured dots; transitions between scenes often involve the world appearing to atomise around people. It’s a curiously powerful effect, and carries a constant and very deliberate suggestion of the world being disintegrated by the missile theoretically hurtling towards them. It makes the VR version of the film all the more effective in conveying the precarity of the world around you.

► On the Morning You Wake (to the End of the World) was screening as part of LFF Expanded at the 2022 London Film Festival.

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