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Sundance 2020: Taylor Swift, VR snorkels and other oddities in Park City

Chat with a Noam Chomsky bot? See Stranger Things' Joe Keery as a deranged ride-hail driver? Tech imbues 2020's Sundance Film Festival, on screen and off.

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Joe Keery, known for playing Steve "The Hair" Harrington in Stranger Things, stars as a social-media-obsessed ride-hail driver in Spree at the Sundance Film Festival. 

Sundance

The Sundance Film Festival takes technology down some mind-bending paths every year. But this year, the Sundance perspective on tech could be its most twisted yet. The festival, which kicked off its 10-day run Thursday night, is saturated with tech more than ever, often grappling with its consequences. 

The center of technology at Sundance is, as always, its New Frontier program. Designed to foster and exhibit new tech-driven storytelling and art, New Frontier is the first major stop of the year for cutting-edge storytellers to show off their work. The program underscores the growing influence of tech, like virtual reality and artificial intelligence, not simply as new formats but as cultural groundswells that creators cross-examine with their work. 

But streaming services are also more central to the festival this year than before. Netflix landed the coveted spot of Sundance's opening night gala premiere, with its Taylor Swift documentary. Hulu is bringing in Hillary Clinton, who will speak at the premiere screening of the service's docuseries about her. Apple TV Plus is here in force for the first time, with a Russell Simmons documentary that has stoked some controversy. 

And beyond that are films, like Spree starring Stranger Things' Joe Keery, that put technology in the crosshairs. 

Dance Trail at Sundance

Dance Trail spills out into the streets as part of Sundance's New Frontier in the Wild program. 

Sundance

This year, New Frontier's ambitions are bigger than ever. The program returns to its two main hubs, the Ray theater and New Frontier Central. But multiple projects break out of those confines this year, spilling out to other locations around the festival's snowy mainstay in Park City, Utah. Spaced Out, for example, puts festival-goers in snorkels and VR headsets for an underwater VR experience at a big hotel pool. Augmented-reality app Dance Trail will pepper festival sites with "megagiant dancers." And New Frontier has created the so-called Biodigital Theater space to perform projects that straddle mixed reality, live performance, gaming and other formats. 

"It's a very different kind of program than the last three years," Shari Frilot, New Frontier's chief curator, said in an interview last week. "It not only reflects the diversity of how technology is changing storytelling, but also how these technologies are starting to converge with biological people inside of digital experiences." 

At its core, of course,  the Sundance Film Festival is a hotbed of independent films. And technology is both how those films will be delivered and a subject of them.  

Streamers and star power

Some of the biggest names appearing at Sundance in 2020 are revealing projects destined for streaming services. 

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Netflix's Taylor Swift documentary kicked off Sundance Thursday as the opening night gala premiere. 

Getty Images

Netflix's Swift documentary, Miss Americana, got things going at the festival Thursday night as the opening-night gala premiere. The documentary, which will stream on Netflix Jan. 31 alongside a run in select theaters, spans several years in the life of the pop star, zeroing in on her obsession with being liked and her maturing decisions that put approval aside. Early reviews of the Miss Americana are positive. 

"I chose Netflix because it's a very vast, accessible medium to people who are just like, 'Hey, what's this? I'm bored,'" Swift said in an interview with Variety

With Clinton and the docuseries about her, Hulu is bringing what some might consider the other most high-wattage guest to Sundance. The former first lady and 2016 presidential candidate will answer questions Saturday after the unveiling of Hulu's four-hour docuseries simply titled Hillary, which will premiere on that platform in March. Even before its release, the doc has been making headlines for Clinton's unvarnished comments about former political rivals. 

Other documentaries tackle tech as a subject: The Social Dilemma is touted as delving into the underbelly of Silicon Valley in a film described as a mix of An Inconvenient Truth and The Matrix. Coded Bias tackles misconceptions about artificial intelligence, hooked to the investigations of MIT Media Lab researcher Joy Buolamwini, who discovers that most facial recognition software doesn't accurately identify darker-skinned faces and the faces of women.

And on Saturday, Apple TV Plus will screen its controversial doc on rape allegations against music mogul Russell Simmons, On the Record. It's first time Apple TV Plus has come to Sundance as an exhibitor rather than solely as a buyer. The documentary made headlines earlier this month when Oprah Winfrey pulled out as an executive producer, saying the film still needed "more work."

Tech suffuses scripted film entries in the festival, too. 

The Dissident, a documentary about the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, includes details about the alleged hacking of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos' phone via a WhatsApp message from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Bezos owns the Washington Post, where Khashoggi was a columnist. The Dissident's planned premiere Friday at Sundance was reportedly among the reasons the United Nations went public Tuesday with its call for an investigation into the Saudi hacking claims.

Spree stars Keery, best known for playing Steve "The Hair" Harrington in Netflix's retro sci-fi hit Stranger Things, as a social-media-obsessed ride-hail driver. Adopting the style of a continuous social media feed, the film is described with language like "misguided carnage" and "killer entertainment." If you follow @KurtsWorld96, the social handle for Keery's character, he'll reportedly follow you back. 

Zola, on the other hand, originated in the social-media sphere. Based on a viral thread of 144 tweets in 2015, this movie re-creates A'ziah "Zola" King's madcap cross-country trip to make as much money as possible in Florida strip clubs, a saga that included prostitution, murder and attempted suicide. 

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Rather than a ripped-from-the-headlines story, Zola's plot was ripped from the Twitter feed. 

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Streaming companies themselves are debuting in Park City, so to speak. Quibi, the mobile-focused streaming service set to launch in March, will be giving first peeks at its short-bite episodes during an unveiling on Friday night on Main Street, in addition to participating in a panel earlier in the day. Amazon's Audible is also showing up at Sundance for the first time, hosting a series of panels, a party and "sound baths" at its so-called "speakeasy" space, also on Main Street. 

New Frontier

This year's New Frontier program spans more than 30 projects that defy attempts to puzzle them out before actually getting to experience them. 

Chomsky vs. Chomsky: First Encounter, for example, involves a conversational AI built from the digital archives of linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky (aptly named CHOMSKY_AI) that will reportedly learn from festival-goers' answers to questions like: Why are we trying to replicate how the human brain works with AI if we know so little about how the human brain works? Other projects grapple with the implications of natural-language processing, like Persuasion Machines, made by the creators of documentary The Great Hack, that visualizes the surveillance taking place through the smart devices all around us and lets you follow the journey of the data collected on you. 

Others bring human bodies into the experience. This can be though social VR like Metamorphic or Solastalgia, the latter of which casts five people as cosmonauts exploring a data cloud left behind after the disappearance of people. Some projects attempt to better connect viewers with their physiological bodies, like Breathe, which visualizes your own breathing and links to the natural world. The so-called Biodigital Theater at New Frontier Central exhibits a rotating slate of pieces seeming to fuse mixed reality, gaming engines, motion capture, musical performance and theater. 

Which segues into projects that seem to defy description. Scarecrow is an immersive VR theater piece involving gaming, thermal haptics, dance and painting. The Electronic Diaries of Lynn Hershman Leeson takes on the topics of big data and AI by setting itself in a locked, blue-lit chamber containing a DNA strand onto which artists in the title has stored her video-recorded messages over decades. 

VR doesn't end with New Frontier. In a less head-scratching sort of experience, Disney is coming to the sidelines of Sundance, showing off the second VR short film from Walt Disney Animation Studios. This time, the company is bringing the world of Frozen 2 to virtual reality with Myth, a short premised on parts of the sequel's plot. 

Originally published Jan. 23. 
Update, Jan. 24: Adds information on The Dissident and On the Record, plus other details as the festival progresses. 

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