To the uninitiated and the non-obsessed, the virtual world called Second Life is a strange psychological mystery. It's a place where people construct whole lives within a virtual landscape, spending real money on server space to build their homes and islands, strike up relationships with other avatars who may or may not look and act like their real-world counterparts.
Given the weirdness of it all, "Molotov Alva and His Search for the Creator," a half-hour film that premieres tonight on Cinemax at 8, is, for lack of a better word, a sort of nifty idea. Writer-director Douglas Gayeton has created what HBO Documentary Films declares the first documentary shot entirely in virtual reality.
Alas, though, the concept is better than the execution: The landscape is compelling but the drama is not. (And "Molotov Alva," with its first-person narration, plays out more like a drama than a documentary.) Alva, an avatar designed to look like Gayeton, has a bald head and a paunch, and walks around barefoot in a business suit. And he turns out to be a really serious virtual guy - mostly, he mopes around, musing on pop philosophy and metaphysics.
It's fascinating to explore what feels like the inside of a painting by Magritte and watch people shift their shapes at will. But as a filmmaking medium, Second Life has a particular weakness: Avatars can't betray facial expressions. In the hands of a very skilled actor, perhaps the voice-over in "Molotov Alva" would work. As it is, it's as flat as a computer screen, even more so because of the script's heavy philosophical load.
In his monotone, Molotov muses on the meaning of Second Life compared to the place he refers to as "the carbon-based world." The conceit is that he has left flesh-and-blood completely behind, though of course that's the real philosophical dilemma of Second Life: While you're tooling around in this new world, you're really sitting in a room somewhere manipulating the "F12" key.
If Molotov recognizes this irony, he doesn't seem to enjoy it. Instead, he gives us mournful tours of virtual homes; meets a wise-hobo type with a bulging eye; starts and abandons an avatar relationship. He briefly visits a few fascinating sub-communities: one where avatars are all shaped like animals, and one where the denizens live a 19th-century existence.
It's cool to look at, and it would actually work beautifully as a Second Life tutorial - look, you can go here and do this! But as a virtual documentary, it's both a little too dull and a few measures too sad. It seems certain people need to take their second lives less seriously.