Tuesday, January 16, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW: Pulse (2006)

What if all those devices of modern convenience -- cell phones, I-Pods, laptop computers with broadband Internet -- machines designed to "connect" us to one another... are actually the gateway to evil? That's the premise of the horror film titled Pulse (2006), another remake of another popular Japanese genre film (Think of The Grudge, The Ring, etc.).

Like those other examples of the form, the idea dominating Pulse is that Evil can spread to millions of innocent folk quickly, and that there need be no reason or rhyme to the pattern of widespread infection. This is a different paradigm from the one featured in old school horrors, like Friday the 13th, for instance, wherein vice (illicit sex, illegal drug use...) always precedes an occasion of slice-and-dice. In the new brand of Japanese horror and their Americanized remakes, just being there - just being present - is enough of a motive to get horribly murdered.

Watch a videotape and die in The Ring. Walk into a nice house in Japan and die of a curse in The Grudge. In Pulse, it's a variation on the same theme. Anyone with Internet access, a cellular phone or digital cable could bite the
dust. This new breed of horror film is all about one thing: the mass, global media and the widespread broadcast of pain, misery and tragedy. Think, if you'll forgive me for bringing it up, of the terror attacks of September 11, and how almost instantly the images of the Twin Towers coming down were broadcast everywhere. It was nearly instantaneous, and it was utterly horrifying. And it replayed on CNN, Fox, MSNBC, CBS, etc...endlessly. People in Europe, in England and France said, on that day, that they were New Yorkers too. Why? Because they experienced the horror with their own eyes. They felt like they were right there, in Manhattan.

Another example: today, we talk about viral videos. Videos that spread like a virus from person-to-person. Is this a good thing? Sure (and by the way, did I mention that you should check my teaser trailer for The House Between at Youtube?) Anyhoo, Saddam Hussein's hanging was recently captured by a cell phone camera and transmitted to the world. The American government itself released videos of his son's bullet-ridden corpses to play on CNN and Fox. These horrors are free to all (even children...) and hanging out there in the ether to be watched, experienced, re-lived and seen again and again. Could there be a karmic or supernatural price for the existence of such widely seen horrors? What do such things do to the "global" human psyche?

So back to Pulse. It's the story of a smart college student, Mattie, played by Veronica Mars' star, the fetching Kristen Bell. She begins to notice an epidemic of lassitude amongst her college buddies. People are disappearing. People are not themselves. Her boyfriend, Josh seems to drop off the face of the planet. Then, she sees him commit suicide. Before long, the cities are deserted, and the End of Days is nigh.

What happened? Well, a telecommunications expert named Zeigler developed a new frequency to transmit huge torrents of information, a super wide band frequency. Unfortunately, the ghoulish spirits of the Dead can piggyback on this revolutionary carrier wave and squeeze back into our world. Where they promptly suck the life out of the living (much like a day spent watching nothing but MTV).
"Do you know what death tastes like?," Mattie is asked by one of the walking zombies? "Metal." That's a pretty creepy thought, but I must say that I found it highly ironic and disconcerting to see Bell playing the lead role in this film. Why? Well, as I've written before, her alter ego on Veronica Mars is a film noir-type detective updated to the 21st century, meaning that she avails herself of all the tools of today's detective trade: GPS trackers, digital cameras, Internet Search Engines and the like. If Veronica were in this film, she'd be in real trouble...because she'd be among the first to die! Funny that one actress should be involved in two productions that look at the yin and yang of modern technology. Someone needs to write a dissertation on Kristen Bell and cell phones.

Anyway, after the opening credits in Pulse, we get frequent insert shots of students walking on campus playing with laptops, talking on cell phones, snapping digital pics, - etc., and the idea made explicit by this imagery is that this stuff, this technology, is ubiquitous, and therefore the perfect avenue for an invasion. Much of the film's visual palette also seems to exist in the half-world of flickering fluorescent lights, which makes a kind of sense...it's like we're looking at a computer screen in the dark half the time. The form echoes the content nicely.

Pulse is a little boring, but also a little atmospheric. Anyone who's seen the other Japanese remakes (or the Japanese originals for that matter...) will be ahead of Pulse's gloomy narrative, and that's a problem. This is a variation on a theme, I wrote above, and it doesn't feel particularly fresh or innovative. It reeks of modern 'teen"-type horror movies in spots, and is less shocking and scary than it should be. But it adheres to its theme nicely. It will leave you feeling uneasy about the tools we take for granted.

Despite numerous flaws - mainly cardboard WB-age characters - the film goes for broke during an apocalyptic and surprisingly effective conclusion. There's a spectacular shot of a jet airliner crashing into a building as it is overcome by ghosts, and this is a beautiful and unexpected vista for a small budget horror. And then the end of the world comes. It isn't averted by a hoary ending, and the film doesn't cop out with a cheap way of stopping the invasion. Oh, the main characters attempt to upload an anti-invasion virus into a server mainframe at the college computer center, but the Dead - apparently having seen Jeff Goldblum already accomplish that task and save the world in Independence Day - circumvent the plan. The "survivors" are left with no choice but to flee to America's "dead zones," those few places out in the wilderness that don't get cell phone signals. It's the end of cities; the end of urban American.

didn't perform well in theaters, and I can enumerate the reasons why. It's dull and a little depressing in parts. There's an overfamiliarity of structure and in narrative content. But damn if the imagery isn't effective at points too, and the climax is damn scary. And uncompromising.

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