A self-described “future shrink,” Mattie (Kristen Bell) is studying psych at an unnamed urban university. Presumably, this means she wants to be able to talk with people, to help patients and create trust. But she’s going through a bad time as Pulse begins, worried that her boyfriend Josh (Jonathan Tucker) isn’t returning her phone calls, that he’s out of touch. Her best friend and roommate Izzie (Christina Milian) urges her to “let go,” observing that Mattie and Josh have spent more time breaking up than hooking up. Still, Mattie wants to know what’s gone “wrong.”
The problem of communication — along with alienation, isolation, and disconnection — is at the center of Jim Sonzero’s film. Remade from Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s 2001 film, Kairo, the new version also investigates the costs of technology. But its technophobic nightmare is more complex than this regular storyline suggests. Pulse makes its nightmare visceral though an intelligently abstract look and aural effects: the imagery and soundtrack throb, most every composition filtered through a gloomy blue pallor, attended by buzzing music and noise.
While it appears to observe Mattie and her friends, like most horror films observe their victims to be, this one is more effectively a study of her interior life, her descent into a sort of abject subjectivity. By the time Mattie makes the decision to visit Josh in person — to take the subway to his apartment building and make her way through an ominous hallway to his sad-looking front door — she’s already tried to reach him by phone and email, leaving messages that float in the air unanswered.
You already know the sort of trouble Josh has found, as you’ve seen him in an opening scene, searching for someone named “Ziegler” in the library: the camera tracks him through grim stacks, haunted by echoes and flickering fluorescent lights. Within minutes Josh is assaulted by a long-limbed, cadaverous ghost, vibrating and dissolving at once, computer-generated (literally and figuratively), an amalgamation of skritchy fragments that presses up against its victim and seems almost to suck his life out. As Josh succumbs, his face goes pale and he screams, even as the ghost screams and moans, their pain uniting them.
Mattie doesn’t know this as she unlocks Josh’s door and pokes through his apartment, murky at midday. She finds his computer on, the screen staticky, a roach creeping along his kitchen sink and maggots in the warm refrigerator. When Josh appears, briefly, he looks less like himself than the ghost who consumed him, his eyes sunken into his face, his mouth a black smudge. When Josh mumbles and wanders past her into the bedroom, Mattie hears a dull growl. Opening a closet door, she finds his cat, skeletal and dying (and also plainly animatronic), mewing and snarling as its life seeps away. It’s not precisely a surprise when she follows Josh into the bedroom and finds him hung from a pipe, his sneakers dangling in close-up.
Mattie should see the seriousness of the situation, but she and her friends keep on with their lives, imagining Josh was singular rather than symptomatic. Along with Izzie, Mattie consults Stone (Rick Gonzalez), a proud CD pirate and cell phone fiend, and Tim (Samm Levine), shy, fond of Mattie, and easily unnerved (he takes Josh’s left-behind advice, to cover all windows and door cracks with red industrial tape, very seriously, eventually holing up in his red room, utterly immobilized). When they find they’re still receiving messages from Josh’s computer (“helpme helpme helpme,” like a texty fly, circa 1958), the friends decide to shut down the machine, as if that will fix things.
Of course it won’t. The “virus,” as TV reporters describe it, is worldwide, and shuts down system after system, rendering users so pained and fearful, so “unlike themselves,” that they’re unable to resist the consuming ghosts. The primary ghost, the bald, convulsive figure from the library, is occasionally replaced by what seems to be “personal” figments (Stone loses himself to a woman with long dark hair). Once stricken by a ghost, the electronics user is then afflicted with a black, veiny stain that spreads from face to neck to torso to arm, its very shiftiness a sign of its implacability. Eventually, humans don’t even need to take their own lives, but instead dissolve into surfaces (leaving black veiny splotches on walls) or into air, as CGI-ed ash.
While the theme of Pulse is familiar — machines are bad — the execution is effectively ooky. The point of view is hardly fixed, as you witness scenes Mattie misses, but it is deeply subjective, as if any access to a screen (cell, computer, movie) sucks you into the same flattening vortex. The ghosts extrapolate themselves from two dimensions, but instead of becoming solid in human space, they seem to remake that space into their own, their ethereal static reflecting users’ internal states. Mattie’s emerges not with help from her smug therapist, Dr. Waterson (Ron Rifkin), but from a good-looking computer geek named Dexter (Ian Somerhalder). Where Waterson chides her for her lack of “self-analysis” and dismisses her suggestion that the sudden “cluster of suicides” might be related to the computer “virus” Josh had discovered, Dexter digs into Josh’s hard drive and finds “scary shit.” Specifically, Dexter finds what seems a webcam loop, a series of images of lonely, harangued souls, their gaunt faces gazing out from the computer screen, their expressions forlorn, afraid, and overwhelmingly cautionary. One guy has a bag on his head, another cowers against a graffitied wall, and still another points a handgun at his head. All are stuck in their loop, all lack dimension. They seem about to kill themselves, but at the same time, already dead.
The lack of mobility in these 2D spaces parallels that in the three-dimensional world. Though Mattie and Dexter do a lot of running in Pulse, exiting rooms where computer screens flicker ominously, they can’t escape the electronic signals that fill the very air they breathe. Long, spooky shots show the vacant campus, or Mattie sitting in a nearly empty lecture hall, taking notes on nothing. When she leaves this non-class and hides in the bathroom, the camera pulls out to show that in the stall next to her sits a ghost, leaning up to the partition just as she does, its face as strained and afraid as hers, if slightly more grey and ghastly. The ghost mirrors Mattie and threatens her: even as she thinks she imagines it, she doesn’t.
The ghosts, says a half-dead Izzie, “want what they don’t have, they want life.” And so the film frames its horror as if the ghosts are so many Pinocchios, yearning for what seems inherently valuable to humans. It’s a lapse of imagination that, following the film’s seeming dedication to the ghosts’ absolute otherness, seems to meta-mirror the still-human characters’ limitations. But Pulse‘s next step, proposing that the ghosts form another sort of life, and don’t just emulate or destroy the life you know, offers a more profound, perverse, and alarming possibility. Communication has turned consumptive. This possibility doesn’t emerge from machines. It lurks within users.