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Immortality review – cinematic masterpiece

A spellbinding collage of video game and film, from the creator of Her Story and Telling Lies, is the best interactive movie ever made.

Those who class themselves as hardcore gamers tend to sneer at interactive movies, pointing out – often correctly – that there’s precious little about them that is actually interactive. Immortality, however, is so good that it could single-handedly rehabilitate an entire genre’s reputation. Technically, it is an interactive movie, but it doesn’t play like one, thanks to a completely original, free-form approach. In truth, it probably deserves to be placed in an entirely new genre of video games, all of its own.

A short tutorial introduces you to its protagonist, Marissa Marcel: every inch the Hollywood movie star, she made three films (in 1968, 1970, and 1999) which somehow never got released, after which she disappeared from any form of public life. Immortality presents you with her entire celluloid archive, and it’s up to you to navigate your way through it however you see fit. As you do so, you uncover all manner of revelations about Marissa and the actors, directors, and movie folk with whom she worked.

You could argue forever about whether Immortality is actually a video game, but it certainly feels like one. It uses the video game medium to create a new type of narrative which unfolds in a completely open-ended manner, offering an entirely different experience to everyone who plays it.

The game aspect comes from the emulation of a Moviola editing machine, which lets you navigate each clip (all its footage purports to be unedited and is presented as a single take), zooming to its start or finish, or advancing frame by frame, should you so desire. On top of that, there’s a slightly magical cross-referencing aspect: at any point during a clip you can pause, click on something in the scene (a bowl of fruit, say, or an actor, painting, or ashtray) and you will be transported to another, related clip.

Often, these clips are from a part of the archive that hasn’t previously been presented to you and after a thoroughly riveting period of going down such rabbit holes, you begin to appreciate the stunning depth of the archive. It isn’t just a collection of takes from the movies themselves, but includes rehearsals, read throughs, filmed location scouting excursions, footage from house parties, interviews – on chat shows, but some also conducted by Marissa herself – screen tests and even wrap parties.

Thus, without any narrative prompting, you start to piece together the underlying reasons behind the non-appearance of Marissa’s movies and gain an insight into how Marissa’s mindset may have been warped by her experiences in the movie industry. Subjects like misogyny, overbearing auteurs, and relationships between actors and directors come to the fore and, almost as an aside, you learn vast amounts about the workings of filmmaking across a span of 30 years.

One key aspect, without which you simply wouldn’t care about the events that Immortality depicts, is the quality of the virtual acting, which operates on a meta level, since the game’s entire cast is playing fictitious movie folk. The three films – Ambrosio, Minsky, and Two of Everything – are vastly different.

The first is a Gothic meditation on religion and sex, and marks Marissa’s screen debut. Minsky is a hard-boiled New York detective effort, which muses on the art world and shoehorns in Warhol’s Factory, while Two of Everything sees Marissa playing a pop star and her body double, and examines the theme of mega stardom, with a side helping of powerful billionaires.

Using the editing matrix, you can actually construct the films themselves (although Minsky’s shooting was never concluded), which is in itself a fascinating exercise, since they stand up brilliantly in their own right – we’ve paid to see plenty of films which were worse acted and more amateurishly produced than this.

Beyond the films, there are countless other delights to be uncovered, such as a meeting between John Durick, Minsky’s director, and an actor playing Andy Warhol in characteristically banal fashion, filmed by Marissa.

Anyone who has any sort of interest in filmmaking should not hesitate to check out Immortality: it has a vast amount to say about the film industry, contains a human interest element examining what the industry does to its stars, and on top of that presents a deeply enjoyable element of using archive footage to uncover hidden mysteries. Incredibly, it communicates all that in an entirely non-didactic manner, leaving you to uncover its storylines in whatever way you see fit.

That lack of hand-holding makes it all the more powerful and thought-provoking. Immortality’s writer and director, Sam Barlow – previously known and admired for the likes of Her Story and Telling Lies – has achieved the feat of creating an entirely new genre of video game, emerging as a major games industry auteur in the process. If you love games and films, you’ll find Immortality absolutely irresistible.

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