'Late Shift': is cinema the right place for an interactive film?

The 'first cinematic interactive film' marks its release in the UAE this weekend

We are mid-heist and there's a security guard around the corner. You could sneak by undetected and carry on with a plan that you, through an obtuse turn of events, have become embroiled in. You could get rich. Or you could alert the guard and put an end to all this, and stop anyone from getting hurt.

Your phone lights up with the two options. So does everyone else’s in the cinema. You have four seconds to make your decision. The votes are tallied. The main character stands up to alert the guard. There’s no going back.

This is what it’s like participating in CTRLMovie, the interactive technology that offers a novel moviegoing experience. The technology makes its debut in the UAE this weekend, with the release of Late Shift, a Bafta-winning heist movie concerning the theft of a priceless piece of Ming Dynasty porcelain.

The concept of the film is rooted in the bestselling Choose Your Own Adventure fantasy book series, which allows readers to make choices for the protagonist, deciding how the plot unfolds.

The film, directed by Tobias Weber, the Swiss founder of CTRLMovie, is carried by some sharp performances by its cast, namely Joe Sowerbutts and Haruka Abe. But though it ticks all the boxes of what a heist film traditionally should have – with its betrayals, plot twists and strained romances – it fails to reel you in.

This is, in large part, owing to the anaemically developed characters and two-dimensional script. Having to keep one eye on your phone while watching the film didn’t help, either. So while the technology is certainly a game-changing cinematic experience, it also felt like it was to the detriment of the film.

Be prepared for technical difficulties, too. Fifteen minutes in and several people in the cinema had raised their hands to complain that the CTRLMovie app – which you should download before watching the film – was not keeping up with what was on screen. The issue was dealt with, but it meant we had to rewatch the film from the beginning.

Late Shift markets itself as the first interactive cinematic experience, but it is by no means the first interactive film. That title generally goes to Kinoautomat, a 1967 black comedy by Czech filmmaker Raduz Cincera. It would stop at nine different points and a moderator would appear on stage to ask the audience to choose between two scenes.

The technology is certainly fun when you’re trying it out for the first time, and it’s best to watch Late Shift with a group of friends or loved ones. There’s an excitement to comparing each other’s choices and seeing which one makes the cut. But be prepared for an abrupt and unsatisfying conclusion, and if that’s the case, then there’s no rewinding and seeing other possible endings unless you sit through the whole film again.

Your second viewing might result in a largely different film – I only saw one version, after all – but that depends on your choices and the choices of those around you. Ultimately, it felt like Late Shift was out of place in the cinema and that the film would have been a much more enjoyable watch at home, where you can backtrack your choices and see how else it could have all played out.

Updated: August 6th 2021, 6:30 AM
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