Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan


Posted by CinemaPsycho on August 16, 2006

Directed by Jim Sonzero/screenplay by Wes Craven and Ray Wright, based on the film “Pulse” by Kiyoshi Kurosawa/starring Kristen Bell, Ian Somerhalder, Christina Milian, Jonathan Tucker, Rick Gonzalez, Samm Levine/Dimension Films – Distant Horizon

A group of college students discover that spending all their time on their cell phones and computers can be hazardous to your health.

Well, they finally released the damn thing! And based on the reviews, you would think that Pulse was the worst thing to hit the planet Earth since cancer. Jesus Christ people, it really ain’t that bad! OK, it’s not great, but it’s hardly “The Worst Horror Movie of the Decade” as one site so hyperbolically put it. Come on – have you seen Renny Harlin’s abomination Exorcist: The Beginning? This doesn’t even rank compared to that piece of shit! For sheer misguided foolishness and obscene stupidity, that is easily the worst horror movie (and possibly worst movie, period) of the ‘00’s. I may avoid Harlin’s films for the next 15 years or so just based on the sheer idiocy of that film (and that includes The Covenant, whose trailer makes it look like the gayest horror movie ever, and by gay, I mean gay). So don’t even come near me with that horseshit.

I’m not saying that Pulse is a particularly good movie – hell, it’s not even the best horror movie this month (that would be The Descent). It’s not a movie that I would defend to the death or anything. But there are some good things about it that keep it from being a total disaster. Not the least of which is the performance by one Kristen Bell – but I’ll get to that later. If you look at it from the right perspective… it’s actually quite the bizarre little moviegoing experience. And I’ll take that over the more generic likes of Step Up and Zoom any day of the week.

This is, of course, a remake of the 2001 Japanese film by noted director Kurosawa (Cure, Doppleganger), whose films are generally serious meditations on modern alienation than they are “scary horror films”. The original Pulse is no exception, which makes it kind of an odd choice for a Hollywood remake. I actually avoided seeing the original until after the remake came out, because I wanted to walk into the remake not knowing what to expect. As it turns out, I need not have worried, since the two films are as different as night and day. It goes without saying that Kurosawa’s film is better than Sonzero’s. Duh. You expected otherwise? But the makers of the remake (the remakers?) have made a valiant effort to at least try to keep some of the style and themes of the original in there, rather than turn it into yet another Scream variation (and if you’re wondering why Craven’s name is on the script, he was supposed to direct the film a few years ago, and they apparently left his name on there for some cache among the horror crowd).

Truthfully, I think a lot of the backlash comes from the film being yet another remake of a Japanese horror film (and a more general backlash towards Asian horror in general, which just a few years ago was considered the potential “savior” of the genre). It’s also a PG-13 film, which means it’s not “hardcore” blood-and-guts horror; a big no-no to those who believe (wrongly) that horror should be one thing and one thing only. My response to that is, if you just don’t care for these kinds of films, don’t fucking go then. I don’t see why that’s a problem. The job of a good critic is to look at the film that’s on the screen and evaluate it based on its merits, not to arbitrarily decide that it’s “not my kind of film” and dismiss it outright. I shouldn’t have to explain that, but apparently I do. So there.

Anyway, the movie stars the lovely and talented Ms. Bell as Mattie Webber, a college student in Columbus, Ohio (yeah, sure) whose boyfriend is apparently some sort of whiz-kid computer hacker. If you know anything about computer hackers, you know they generally do not have girlfriends, much less of the quality of Kristen Bell, so we’re already stretching credibility right there. Nonetheless, Josh (Tucker) has downloaded a virus which somehow allows spirits from the netherworld to invade our world and, as the kids say, fuck some shit up. The emaciated Josh winds up hanging himself while Mattie is in the apartment (he couldn’t even wait until she left? Talk about rude), leaving Mattie and her requisite group of racially diverse friends to try to figure out why. Soon they start getting emails from Josh, which makes the whole thing even stranger, him being dead and all.

So Mattie soon discovers that Josh’s computer was sold by his black-stereotype landlady to one Dexter McCarthy (Somerhalder, in greasy and disheveled mode). Dexter is literally The Guy in this movie, a character who only exists to help Mattie find stuff out and possibly be a romantic interest down the line (perhaps in the Sequel That Will Never Happen). Otherwise, he has no distinguishing characteristics or interesting qualities, except that he apparently buys stolen merchandise. Dexter discovers what appears to be webcam footage of strange ghost-like figures sitting around looking wasted, and informs Mattie that her ex was into some weird shit. From there, Mattie and Dexter discover the truth about the virus, which Josh received from some mysterious guy named Ziegler, while Mattie’s friends are infected by some kind of disease which turns their skin jet-black and eventually disintegrates them. So basically Josh would have just disintegrated anyway even if he hadn’t offed himself, but the movie never brings that up.

If that plot description doesn’t sound absolutely nuts to you, well, you obviously haven’t seen the movie. It comes off even weirder than it sounds, believe me, and there are some pretty huge logic gaps even before the movie goes completely bugfuck lunatic in the last 15 minutes or so. The writers never seem to establish a solid set of rules for how exactly the “ghost virus” actually works. Horror movies aren’t known for their sense of logic, but you have to set up rules for how the killer/monster/ghost/whatever operates and stick to them. There’s a raging inconsistency from one setpiece to another here – sometimes the ghosts can only get in through the use of technology, and sometimes they just appear at random, wherever the character about to be killed or chased happens to be. Supposedly only red duct tape keeps them out (see, duct tape is good for everything), but if you’re the lead, all you have to do is be on the other side of a bathroom stall and run away to keep a ghost from attacking you. At one point, the “ghost feed” works even when the computer is disconnected, which suggests that the technology doesn’t even have to be plugged in for them to use it to get through. Yet at another point, the characters are being chased by the ghosts and they save themselves by driving to a “dead spot” where there are no cell phone signals. So if the ghosts don’t actually need the technology to be working, then wouldn’t just having it with you be enough?

I’m no expert on computers or anything, but none of this stuff made any particular sense to me. Why would a computer virus also affect cell phones and cable television? How could the ghosts control the technology from the other side? Why wouldn’t the ghosts all try to come through at once? There are some vague attempts at explanation, but none of them really seem to answer anything definitively. You get the feeling that a few minutes of exposition here and there would have cleared things up, but it’s possible that those minutes were cut out to save time. Who knows, maybe it’s not supposed to make any sense. That would make it the perfect horror movie for our times, wouldn’t it?

The funniest thing, at least to me, is the movie’s setting. They shot the film in Romania, which definitely looks nothing like any American city with its Eastern European architecture and general sense of decay. Apparently Columbus is the dirtiest, grimiest, grungiest city on the planet Earth, or at least that’s what this movie would have you believe. Every frame looks like it’s been shot through a layer of gray ash. See, I’ve been to Columbus many times, and this doesn’t even come close to what it actually looks like. So if they had picked virtually any other American city, it might not have bothered me at all, but this doesn’t look like any American city. It looks like a place where vampires might be chased away by large mobs with torches. Even the “modern” buildings look like they’ve been vacant for decades. It might have been interesting to actually set the film in a European country, and make the characters foreign exchange students studying abroad, which would make their sense of alienation all the more pronounced. It would also explain the lack of police or military presence, the virtually abandoned streets and the complete absence of anything that signifies America, such as a flag. But alas, that’s not the route they chose to go, so the “world” of the film is completely unbelievable.

They obviously chose the location for financial reasons (those cheap-ass Weinsteins!), and the lack of budget really hurts the film’s big finale, which is supposed to be some chaotic “end of the world” type shit, and instead looks like something they shot on a rundown backlot in Encino. A couple of empty streets with paper flying around do not convincingly portray the potential apocalypse, I’m sorry. Where these scenes should be the most visually impressive of the film, they look like something Roger Corman whipped up with some stock footage and leftover B-roll. The shot of the plane crashing was apparently lifted directly from Kurosawa’s film, with a shot of Bell and Somerhalder superimposed over the bottom of the screen, and it looks exactly as bad as that sounds. Really, if you’re not going to spend the money to pull it off convincingly, don’t bother.

Those wacky Weinsteins also reportedly ordered the film to be cut down to a PG-13 from an R, and while that doesn’t seem to have hurt anything greatly, it doesn’t appear to have helped either (including at the boxoffice). A film like this doesn’t necessarily need to be gory, but when the intention is to disturb, why pull your punches? I don’t have a problem with a horror film being PG-13 if that’s what was intended, but cutting one down to get a softer rating just seems to defeat the purpose. It should be pretty clear by now that horror fans want R-rated films and are suspicious of anything else – and the kids are just gonna sneak into it anyway. I would’ve liked to see the tower scene that was cut from the film but was prominently used in the trailers and ads – and that’s another pet peeve of mine. If it’s in the trailer, put it in the fucking movie! Especially in a movie like this, where imagery is everything, I really hate paying to see a movie and not seeing what I wanted to see. That scene is in the original, and it’s one of the most jarring moments of the film. The rule of thumb really ought to be, if it works, use it!

So what exactly saves Pulse from being a total wipeout? First of all – you guessed it – there’s Kristen Bell, who proves once again what a terrific actress she is. She makes Mattie a believable character, whose emotional distress over her boyfriend’s death is palpable and realistic. Mattie hides her feelings with a tough exterior, but her pain is deep and just below the surface. The scene with her counselor (a surprisingly good Ron Rifkin) is some extraordinary acting, and I’m not bullshitting you. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – the girl is good, and she puts all the plastic Hollywood Barbie dolls to shame. Even when the movie gets progressively silly, you just believe her, no matter what. She’s just phenomenal, and she elevates the material more than it probably deserves. If anyone should walk away from this with their reputation unscathed, it’s Bell. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt that she’s gorgeous. But you already knew that, didn’t you?

There are also some nice touches within the narrative that keep things interesting. Taking the original’s theme of technology pulling us further apart and running with it, these kids are pretty much always with their cell phones, PDA’s, laptops, etc. Although it doesn’t seem to keep them from forming relationships, that at least seems accurate to what today’s youth are doing. While the movie never really explores that theme too seriously (what’s the message – “don’t use your cell phone too much or ghosts will come out of it and kill you?”), at least it’s in there. I also liked the character of Tim (Levine), who clearly has a big crush on Mattie despite his status as “platonic friend” (and who can blame him?), and she seems subconsciously aware of it, even if it never goes anywhere. I can’t stand these movies and TV shows where people of both sexes are “just friends”, without even acknowledging potential crushes within the group. It’s like they’re all neutered, and it’s bullshit. I’ll let you in on a little secret – no heterosexual guy ever wants to be “just friends” unless the girl is hideously ugly or totally fucked up and out of her mind. So that was a nice realistic touch.

Also, I thought first-timer Sonzero did a decent job of giving the movie some creepy atmosphere (although it couldn’t have been too difficult, given the locations), and showed some potential for possibly making something really good in the future. You can’t really blame him too much for the narrative problems, given the forced cuts in the film. I mean, that’s what happens when you work for the Weinsteins – don’t people know this by now? Unless your name is Tarantino, Rodriguez, Kevin Smith or Anthony Minghella, Bob and Harvey will fuck you over. It comes with the territory. When you sign on the dotted line, you’re taking your chances. Sure, other studio heads do that stuff too, but the Weinsteins are so blatant about it (almost like they’re proud of it), that it’s hard not to take shots at them for it. So, given all the aforementioned problems, I thought it was damn near a miracle that Sonzero pulled any of this movie off at all. You gotta give him credit for that, at least. Hopefully he’ll be smart enough to get as far away as possible from Dimension and won’t wind up making straight-to-video sequels for them.

I know, that’s not much to hang a halfway-positive review on. But at least it’s something. In the end, I didn’t love this movie, and I didn’t hate it. It was just OK. But that’s a damn sight better than “Worst Movie of the Decade”. Even if I can’t fully recommend it, it was at least watchable for the most part. It’s not much…but I’ll take it.

**1/2 8/16/06

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: