Bixby makes her way through a post-apocalyptic landscape, scavenging for food, water, and other resources. In the course of her wanderings, she discovers a virtual reality machine in an abandoned cabin.
The virtual world is a marked relief from the woman’s own. Lush, peaceful and tropical, it’s a beautiful beach with a gorgeous view of an eternal sunset. And she’s not alone: a man named Nate is there as well, and the woman falls in love with him, despite the bugs in the virtual reality equipment.
But as her food and resources run out, the woman is forced to make a decision: abandon the machine and her lover, or face certain starvation and death.
Richly ambitious, visually sweeping and full of genuine, engaging emotion, this short sci-fi romance — written and directed by P. Patrick Hogan — begins like many post-apocalyptic stories. Through epic wide shots of a stunning but desolate sand-filled world, we see a woman, clad head to toe in protective clothing and goggles, pulling her belongings on a sled behind her. The world has become a wasteland, and human beings are isolated and alone. There isn’t a tremendous amount of backstory or explanation, but with images this striking and distinctive, viewers don’t need much hand-holding to understand how desolate the world is, and what impact it has on its few inhabitants.
So we can see the appeal when Bixby, played with weary presence by actor Katie Savoy, stumbles upon the virtual reality machine and the beautiful paradise it offers her. The real draw, for her and viewers, is the presence of another person to talk to, however virtual. As the woman’s immersion into this realm of VR increases, her attachment to this virtual man grows as well, becoming a full-blown love affair.
Developing this narrative strand of romance offers a lovely juxtaposition to the real world’s aridity and emptiness, and it’s hard not to get caught up and invested emotionally, thanks to the storytelling’s genuine sweetness and the warm, steadfast performance of the woman’s romantic partner by actor Wolé Parks. (It also offers opportunities for levity, thanks to the machine’s constant shutting down at inopportune moments.)
Perhaps on its own, this cinematic romance might be “too much,” but for Bixby, it’s emotional sustenance after such isolation. Her emotional attachment grows and begs questions of just how much of a relationship takes place in our heads. But what’s most powerful about the film is that, due to its unabashed emotional fearlessness, such philosophical questions recede as a more pressing dilemma asserts itself. Food and water are running out, and Bixby must move on to survive, leaving virtual Nate behind. The story’s biggest accomplishment is how wrenching we understand this decision is for her, and though Nate isn’t “real,” in the sense of sharing her physical reality, her love and longing for connection is.
Elegantly pared-down and compelling at every turn, “Virtually” ends on a richly moving note, one that underscores its central themes of hope and connection, which might have unexpected resonance in a time when quarantines and self-isolation on a global scale are on our minds. We may be able to survive alone, but we cannot thrive without others. As the woman discovers, our love and connection through others give us hope — and hope is what helps us endure difficulty, and travail, as we fight to get to the next day, and one another.