Thursday, August 28, 2014

Cult-Movie Review: Pulse (2006)

What if all the devices of modern convenience -- like cell phones, I-Pods, or laptop computers with broadband Internet -- are actually the gateway to pure evil?

That's the premise of the horror film Pulse (2006), another remake of a popular Japanese genre film, Kairo (2001).

The American film, co-written by Wes Craven and Ray Wright and directed by Jim Sonzero suggests that the very tools we use to connect with others only isolate us, taking away pieces of our souls a huge chunk at a time. 

Not unlike The Ring (2002), the conceit underlining 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. Anyone with Internet access, a cell phone or digital cable may suffer.

As I’ve noted in my reviews of The Ring and The Grudge, this new breed of horror film is all about two key notions.

First, the J-horror remake genre concerns our discomfort with rapidly-advancing technology, and the widespread broadcast of pain, misery and tragedy.

Secondly, these films ask if there could be a karmic or supernatural price for these widely-seen horrors?

What do such things do to the "global" human psyche?

Pulse goes even further, however, and suggests that living a life of electronic connection actually destroys the will to exist in our own world. 

Accordingly such “online” life leaves this world an abandoned, untended, rotting place. This fact is reflected in the film’s metallic color palette, and in images of a world with rotting infrastructure and much organic decay.

“Do you want to meet a ghost?

A college student, Mattie (Kristen Bell) worries about her sometimes boyfriend, Josh (Jonathan Tucker), who has been out-of-touch of late. When she visits his apartment, Josh commits suicide before her very eyes, and she is traumatized.

Soon, an epidemic of suicides plagues the campus and the city.

Mattie tries to track down Josh’s computer hard-drive, and learns that it has been purchased by man a named Dexter (Ian Somerhalder), who puts some of the pieces together. 

Before his death, Josh had hacked the computer of a telecommunications expert named Zeigler, who 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.

Once back on the mortal coil, they promptly suck the life out of the living,  stealing that which we cherish the most: life itself.

As society collapses, and everyone with a computer or cell phone is devoured by the restless spirits, Dexter and Mattie attempt to upload a virus that will shut down the telecommunications system.

But it is too late to undo the damage, and the apocalypse arrives, with surviving humans forced to huddle in satellite “dead zones” where cell phone and Wi-Fi transmissions cannot touch them..

“I’m not even me anymore. I’m all gone.”

Pulse is not a perfect film by any means, and one senses some that some crucial scenes may have been drastically cut to shorten the running time.

Despite this fact, Pulse is much better than it is given credit for, especially following a rocky start.  The second act works like gangbusters, when one starts to realize how all the pieces fit together.

Pulse’s central tenant is a critique of the “online” or “connected” world of the Web 2.0 Age.

Following Pulse’s opening credits, for example, the film cuts to frequent insert shots of students walking on campus playing with laptops, talking on cell phones, and snapping digital pictures. The idea made explicit by this imagery is that technology is ubiquitous, and therefore the perfect avenue for an invasion.  As a culture, we have turned our attentions away from nature and reality, to this new cyber world of the Net.

Accordingly, 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 as though the audience is gazing at a computer screen in the dark half the time. The form thus echoes the films content nicely.  The world is becoming increasingly ugly-looking, and that ugliness stems from the invasion of the “other world” but also the lack of attention we give this one.

For example, almost every location in Pulse looks filthy. Mattie finds rotting food in Josh’s refrigerator.  She also stumbles upon a rotting, dying cat, actually, in one of his closets. 

These discoveries suggest that Josh -- his soul now robbed by the online “spirits” -- has forsaken all interest in this world.  He doesn’t care to eat.  He doesn’t even care for his pet cat. Once consumed, literally, by the denizens of the Net, the here and now on Earth mean nothing to him.

And unfortunately, this kind of obsession with the digital realm is not merely limited to movies. You may have read, for instance, about the case of a couple in South Korea that spent so much time online -- tending to a virtual baby -- that their real-life, biological baby died of malnourishment.

Pulse comments on that very dynamic, and has done so prophetically.

This leitmotif is given voice, again, in the description of life on Earth after being consumed by the digital world.  “They take your will to live,” states one zombie-like character. “You’re a shell.  Your body dies right out from under you.”

Pulse is thus a horror allegory for people who spend too much time online, but shirk real life relationships and real life responsibilities doing so, and with ultimately, nothing to show for it.   The answer, according to Pulse (rather amusingly): “dispose of your technology!”

What many reviewers have tagged as Pulse’s weakness, a kind of fever-edited -- nay hyper-edited --visualization, actually seems to reinforce the content too. Everything seems to happen at the lightning-fast speed of information transmission, and there’s always a new scene demanding attention, even when you might like to further mine a scene already in progress.  

What tethers the movie, perhaps, is a series of repetitive shots of Mattie’s campus.  Little by little, it grows abandoned, as our world dies, and these shots help to establish the timing and progression of the invasion.

Finally, the film rises to a fever pitch 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 arrives. It isn't averted by a hoary “happy” ending, and Pulse doesn't cop out with a cheap way of stopping the invasion. The main characters attempt to upload an anti-invasion virus into a server mainframe at the college computer center, but the Dead circumvent the plan. The die is cast.

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. As it winds to its shattering denouement, Pulse makes audiences contemplate the end of cities; the end of urban American, and the end of “connected” civilization.  It’s ironic that the “dead zones” of no Wi-Fi are the only place where natural life can grow.

Then again, perhaps that irony is the movie’s point.


  1. I passed on this film when it came out, but your review has really perked my interest. I did see the Japanese version, and found it to be a mixed bag. The director, Kurosawa, is known for his very slow paced films and the fact that he doesn't provide explanations in the film of what or why things are happening. That is a perfect description of the Japanese version of "Pulse". Normally I don't mind cryptic films, in fact I usually love figuring out the puzzle. But this film moved so slowly and didn't really seem to build much that I found it more tedious than intriguing. A great concept and some really creepy moments, but the whole didn't quite work for me. Sounds like the American remake kept the original ending though. That's a good thing.

  2. Wes Craven directed a film about a serial killer who used electricity to come back to life in 1989's 'Shocker'. The story did not work, the film was a bust. And while 'Pulse' is different, technology 'gone bad' horror just does not connect. Wes Craven, a master, has failed twice in this sub-genre, but by no means is he the only one.
    'One Missed Call' and 'Stay Alive' came out around the time of 'Pulse' and they were even lesser incarnations. 'The Ring' was the best, however John Carpenter, ever to voice his opinion on the state of horror, called 'The Ring' pseudo-horror. Technology gone bad films are interesting, but not visceral.

    Aesthetically, the film looks good, however I have to say that the green shading of horror films of this period is distracting and unnecessary.