Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Pulse (2006)

I think it goes without saying that technology is a pretty huge part of life in the twenty-first century. We've got the Internet to keep us abreast of the world around us at a moment's notice, we've got cell phones and PDAs and instant messaging software to keep us in contact with all our buddies no matter where we are, all of it available without having to actually physically interact with a real flesh-and-blood person. The distancing of humanity through technology served as the basis for Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa's cinematic study in existential isolationism, Kairo.

I didn't exactly "get" Kairo when I saw it, but I guess I'm in the minority, since it's proven to be somewhat popular among fans of the multitude of ghost stories populating Asian cinema. So when American movie studios began purchasing the remake rights of numerous J-Horror movies in the wake of The Ring's success in 2002, Kairo was naturally one of those films. Picked up by Dimension Films and the Weinstein Company, the remake (titled Pulse) traveled a long and arduous road to theaters, which I'll get into later. But when it was finally released, it ended up being completely ripped to shreds by critics and barely made enough money at the box office to cover its budget. So let's get to explaining why.

Mattie Webber (Kristen Bell) is a bright young college psychology major, but she's not exactly in the best of spirits. She hasn't seen or heard from her boyfriend Josh (Jonathan Tucker) in several days, and he hasn't responded to any of her phone calls or text messages. After he finally leaves a bizarre message on her answering machine, Mattie swings by his apartment to check on him. Why it took her a week to decide to visit him in person, I have no idea.

But maybe she shouldn't have bothered checking on him after all, because when she enters his apartment, it looks like she's walking into a disaster area. There's cockroaches in the cabinets, maggots in the refrigerator, and a sickly, dying cat in a closet. So either Josh is a really poor tenant, or his building is located in the seventh circle of Hell.

Josh himself isn't doing to well either, as he looks like absolute crap. He's in dire need of some sun, and his demeanor is listless and uncaring. Josh tells Mattie to stay in the living room, then heads back to another room. A few moments go by, and when she goes to see what he's doing, Mattie is shocked to discover that Josh has hanged himself.

Mattie and her friends — party girl Izzy (Christina Milian), illegal downloading addict Stone (Rick Gonzalez), and all-around nerd Tim (Samm Levine) — all mourn Josh's suicide, reminiscing about him in an online chat room. The chat, however, is soon flooded with hundreds of messages from Josh's screen name, each and every one of them reading "help me."

The group assumes that his computer is still running and that a virus is creating the messages, so Stone is commissioned to go to Josh's apartment and turn the computer off. No big deal, right? Of course not. But something happens at the apartment that causes Stone to completely withdraw from the group. He doesn't leave his apartment, he keeps to himself, and when he does talk to one of the others, he speaks in a sullen, depressed, lifeless tone.

Whatever happened to Stone didn't stop those bizarre "help me" messages, so Mattie figures she'll go take care of Josh's computer herself. She ends up running into his landlady (Octavia Spencer), who in no uncertain terms tells Mattie that she sold Josh's computer to make up for him never paying his rent.

Turns out the buyer's check bounced, so Mattie uses that to track down a hacker by the name of Dexter McCarthy (Ian Somerhalder). She accuses him of harassing her and her friends with the messages, but Dexter stops her long enough to reveal that, since he's a bit of a procrastinator, the computer's been sitting in the trunk of his car since he bought it.

After Mattie leaves, Dexter decides to go ahead and take the computer inside. As soon as he turns it on, a question appears: "Do you want to meet a ghost?" It's followed by numerous scenes of despondent-looking people filming themselves with webcams, many of whom are killing themselves, nearly all of them seeming to stare at Dexter through his monitor.

As the days go by, the number of people out and about begins to dwindle. Once crowded areas of the college campus are now like ghost towns, and there is an increasing number of people committing suicide — and later, vanishing altogether — throughout the city.

Dexter tracks down Mattie, revealing what he'd been able to salvage from her late boyfriend's computer. Among the items he retrieved were a number of video messages to someone named Douglas Zieglar (Kel O'Neill). The videos disclose that Josh had hacked into Zieglar's computer, from which he had stolen and accidentally distributed a virus that Zieglar had developed.

This virus somehow managed to bridge the gap between the living and the dead, allowing the spirits of the deceased to reach our realm through cell phone networks and Wi-Fi connections. The bridge into our world is widening, with more and more ghosts entering and sucking the will to live out of everyone they encounter.

But before his death, Josh apparently developed another virus that he believed would counteract Zieglar's. This bit of information brings Mattie and Dexter together, and as the world's population gives way to a greater number of phantoms, they try to hunt down Zieglar to figure out how to put Josh's fix into play before they disappear as well.

What do you get when you take a plot that has boatloads of potential and a solid cast and combine that with lukewarm direction and a script that's about as deep as a kiddie pool? Pulse, that's what you get. Honestly, I should have known from all the time it spent languishing in developmental hell that it was doomed from the start. The movie was supposed to start production with Wes Craven on board as writer and director, but he eventually abandoned the project, supposedly due to a disagreement over how his werewolf movie Cursed was handled by Dimension Pictures. Kirsten Dunst had been hired as the film's star, but she ended up quitting to go work on Spider-Man 2. Pulse was even temporarily cancelled because of the studio's belief that it was too similar to The Ring.

Production eventually did commence, and the MPAA handed it an R rating. But no, we can't have an R-rated horror movie, because then it can't be marketed to teenagers. So the cast and crew went back and did re-shoots in order to tone down the movie's more terrifying scenes and acquire a PG-13. This only served to make the movie less scary, and by the time Dimension decided on a release date after bouncing it all over the calendar, Pulse was dead on arrival.
The really disappointing part of Pulse is that there's so many things in it that could go right, but most of them end up going wrong and turn the movie into a less-than-mediocre piece of crap.

What really bogs things down is the screenplay written by Ray Wright. (Wes Craven is credited as a co-writer, but my guess is that's only due to union regulations.) As I stated in the opening paragraph, I wasn't exactly a fan of Kairo. While it had a few creepy visuals, I thought the film was overlong, had little in the way of plot or story, and was thoroughly incomprehensible. Wright does improve upon Kairo by trying to tell some kind of story, but I don't believe that his attempt was all that successful.

One of the big problems with this is that there's no real sense that any time is passing. Does the movie take place over days? Weeks? I just couldn't tell you. It seems almost as if the movie skips from a minor epidemic of suicides to people vanishing into a cloud of black ash to the entire city being almost completely deserted within just a few scenes. Are things moving that quickly? Or is Wright just not very good at establishing a concrete timeline for we the viewer to follow?

Another problem is that Wright's script is absolutely absurd on almost every level. Absurdity can work in some movies, but Pulse is one of those movies where it doesn't. We never really care about any of the characters nor do we ever once feel like we're a part of this world we're presented with, like we're being forced to watch every implausible plot turn without any sort of insight as to why these things happen. Like the explanation for all the red duct tape that keeps popping up. They introduce it with a note from Josh that states, "Keeps them out, don't know why." That's lame. Near the end of the movie, Zieglar reveals that the red tape interferes with the carrier signals of the ghosts, or something like that. That's even lamer. The movie makes less and less sense as the movie goes on, to the point that you're begging the movie to start rolling the end credits just so it'll be over.

Wright also misses a prime opportunity to make a social commentary on how, despite the idea that it could bring people closer together, advances in communication technology are pushing society apart. Why bother talking to someone in person when you can e-mail them or send them an instant message from a thousand miles away? Why go out and interact with people in stores when you can simply get online and have everything you'd ever want, from clothes to entertainment to even pizzas, delivered right to your door?

While this sort of thing is all good and fun in theory, it also runs the risk of severely cutting down on real human interaction. And outside of one throwaway line at the end of the movie, I don't believe Wright really addresses this idea. There are some instances where he gets close, but he doesn't bother to pull the trigger.

Not everything about the movie is as bad as the script, I will admit. I said earlier that the work of first-time director Jim Sonzero was lukewarm, although that may be only due to the whole of the movie not really gelling together. Sonzero's work here is not exactly noteworthy, but there is the occasional flash of brilliance in it. Some of the scares are pulled off very well, and I thought the special effects were really good. I also have to state that Sonzero also does a fine job when it comes to his appropriation of Kairo's best moments. Each of them are excellently done, and Sonzero even adds a memorable moment or two of his own.

He also teams up with director of cinematography Mark Plummer to create a number of great camera angles and shots, as well as utilizing a dreary blue-gray color scheme that works excellently in relating the life being drained out of the world. (Unfortunately, the color scheme also has the disappointing side effect of just making the film more and more depressing as each minute passes.) I must also applaud composer Elia Cmiral for his wonderful score. His use of both music and creepy ambient noise serves to bolster the film's atmosphere, and in a better film, the music would have been absolutely excellent.

The cast, for the most part, does what they can with what they're given. Try as they might, they just can't save this turkey. Rick Gonzalez and Samm Levine are likable despite their roles being both thankless and poorly written, while Jonathan Tucker's role is so minor in terms of screen time that it doesn't really matter how his performance was. Though in Tucker's defense, he wasn't too bad at all.

And despite being known more for her singing career than acting, Christina Milian actually does a halfway decent job. Lost star Ian Somerhalder, our story's male lead, does manage to hold up his share of the work in a performance that might not go on his career highlight reel, but it does get his foot in the door when it comes to doing big Hollywood movies.

The best of the main cast, though, has to be Kristen Bell of Veronica Mars fame. Despite the role being less like Veronica Mars and more like just another horror role meant for a cute blonde actress (see also: Naomi Watts in The Ring; Sarah Michelle Gellar in The Grudge), Bell does as fine a job as can be expected. She's a quite talented actress when it comes to working with good material, but Pulse proves that she can at least chip in a watchable performance when working with awful material as well.

Though as good as Bell is, perhaps the most entertaining offering comes from a quick cameo by Brad Dourif, who diehard horror fans will recognize as the voice of Chucky the killer doll. Dourif has only forty-five seconds of screen time, but he delivers his lines with such enthusiasm that it almost made me wish he had a bigger role in the movie.

And who gave the worst performance? Kel O'Neill, who plays Zieglar. He only has one scene, but his performance is just bad, bad, bad. The character is useless and contributes absolutely nothing to the movie, so I guess O'Neill figured he wouldn't bother. His performance is horrible, and the scene itself completely insults the intelligence of the audience by badly spelling out everything that we've pretty much figured out by the time it happens. The whole thing seems like a big waste.

I think the biggest reasons for Pulse's failure were its horrible script and what appears to be rampant studio interference. Instead of being the exception, the movie was unfortunately the norm because no matter what kind of effort was put into it, Pulse ended up being nothing that hadn't already been done. There's nothing new about the movie, nothing we haven't seen before, nothing that really makes it worth watching more than any other J-Horror remake that has been made over the last decade. If anything, I'd say that had Kiyoshi Kurosawa never made Kairo and Pulse was an original film, it would have promptly been rightfully dismissed as an incredibly cheap hybrid of the infinitely superior movies The Grudge and White Noise.

And while it isn't a complete and total failure, it's pretty darn close. You could do a lot worse than Pulse, but you could do a hell of a lot better too. So I'm going to give Pulse two stars and pray that ghosts don't start crawling out of my computer to get revenge against me for giving this movie a bad review.

Final Rating: **