By Carla Lee
Though I am not really a fan of either Damon or Ian Somerhalder, Somerhalder’s next on the IMDB.com cast list for The Vampire Diaries and so, this week, I bring you a brief review of Pulse. Brief because it’s simply not a very good movie and I couldn’t find very much to say about it.
IMDB.com synopsis: When their computer hacker friend accidentally channels a mysterious wireless signal, a group of co-eds rally to stop a terrifying evil from taking over the world.
Initial thoughts: I love technology. I love that it can bring people together and allow relationships of all kinds to flourish despite the distance. I was already perturbed by 2009’s spate of anti-technology movies – including The Gamer and some interpretations of Avatar – so I’m not looking forward to watching this movie.
Mini-review: Actually fairly entertaining. It’s not a good movie, and it’s not really bad enough to be so bad it’s good, but the characters were occasionally fun. I expected to hate a movie mostly made up of stereotypical horror movie scenes, but I didn’t. I am a fan of cheesy horror movies, but this one didn’t make much of an impression, so I’m not sure why I enjoyed it as much as I did. After watching it, I think the IMDB.com synopsis really fails to be an accurate description, too.
As with many American horror movies (and horror movie remakes), there are quite a few characters who get screentime but not a whole lot of development. This can get difficult to follow in a review or recap, so I thought we’d start with a quick introduction to the cast of characters.
Characters (Who Will Mostly Be Dead By The End of the Movie):
Mattie: Our hero, played by Kristen Bell. Her boyfriend, Josh, sets the events of the movie into motion and, after witnessing his suicide, Mattie spends the rest of the time trying to figure out why.
Josh: Important Hacker #1, played by Jonathan Tucker. He hacks into Douglas’s network and releases a bunch of malevolent ghosts that use technology to infect people and steal their will to live. Josh’s is the first death of the movie and it inspires his girlfriend, Mattie, to try to learn the truth. Though he, along with Douglas, is the real reason the ghosts are free, unlike Douglas, Josh tries to fix the mess he created by writing a virus which he thinks will shut down the ghosts.
Dexter: The movie’s Bad Boy and Important Hacker #3, played by Ian Somerhalder. He buys Josh’s computer after Josh’s suicide and therefore, is the source of most of the information Mattie needs to find out why Josh – and then others – kill themselves after using technology. Dexter and Mattie end up working together to track down Douglas and then escape the city.
Douglas Ziegler: Important Hacker #2, played by Kel O’Neill. Douglas was working on a telecommunications project that uncovered frequencies no one knew existed, and the ghosts had been using those frequencies. When Josh hacked the system, the ghosts were freed and able to access regular frequencies, as well. Douglas is referenced throughout the movie, but we don’t see him until close to the end, and he spends that entire scene doing nothing to fix the mess he helped create, though he does pass necessary information to Mattie and Dexter.
Mattie’s friends, who all use technology to communicate and have unhealthy levels of curiosity, which make them prime targets for the ghosts:
Isabelle Fuentes, Izzy: Mattie’s best friend and roommate, played by Christina Milian. Izzy is a feisty, flirty, sexy woman of colour and a good friend to Mattie, despite the constraints of the movie, which doesn’t show much of their time together.
Stone: A minor hacker, played by Rick Gonzalez. Stone volunteers to try to shut off Josh’s computer when they start receiving messages from Josh even after his death.
Tim: Another minor hacker, played by Samm Levine. Tim is obsessed with having a romantic relationship with Mattie, even though she’s not interested in him.
Now that we have all the characters down, let’s take a look at the movie.
From the opening credits, it’s clear that this is not necessarily the movie for someone who loves technology. The various clips throughout the credits focus on all the ways people are addicted to their technology, and then the movie opens with visuals backing up those claims, people everywhere on their machines.
We’re introduced right away to Josh, who is on a quest to meet Douglas. As he’s walking, the audience gets to see a creepy flash of some lurking person (ghost!), first in a rearview mirror and then in a video screen at library security. The library itself is dark and creepy and, though I love libraries, I can’t deny many of them are just like that. The ones where the lights in the stacks automatically shut off unless there is movement are particularly disturbing. The scene of Josh searching the stacks for the guy he’s supposed to meet is trying hard to be creepy, but really isn’t. I think the background music is just a little too much and pushes the scene into overdone, instead. I did enjoy the ghost darting out of the empty space on a bookshelf.
The anti-technology message of the movie is driven home once more when we’re introduced to Mattie, Josh’s girlfriend, a psychology major who laments the way relationships have been reduced to text messages. She calls it “tragic” and blames technology, but I think that’s more on the people involved, you know. There’s nothing wrong with text messages being a part of a relationship, but if the people involved only use that to communicate, there’s a bit of a problem that has nothing to do with technology, you know. Mattie’s best friend is Izzy, who is a flirty, sexy woman of colour and will therefore not survive the movie. I’m not sure I expect most of the characters to survive the movie, though, so I’m hoping she won’t be the first death.
Mattie takes off on her own to track down the elusive Josh. There’s no answer at his apartment, but he keeps a key above his door. Why he hasn’t been robbed of all his technology, I don’t know. Maybe would-be thieves were driven away by the smell, because Josh has maggots in his fridge and a freaky zombie cat in his closet. Josh himself is acting strange, distant, and he has something black creeping through his veins and along his skin. He tells Mattie to wait for him and then promptly hangs himself in the other room. That’s not a good sign. It also kicks off the first of many nightmares Mattie has about Josh telling her there’s something wrong with him.
Of course, Mattie’s therapist interprets this as meaning that she’s feeling guilty about his suicide. At first, she holds strong and says she only blames him, but eventually, she breaks down and says she should have seen the signs. The therapist says sometimes, there aren’t signs and sometimes, there’s no way to save people. While I think that’s true, I’m really disliking the way the movie is presenting the idea that technology causes depression, isolation and eventual death.
During a group IM between Mattie and her friends, which I find ridiculously adorable because I so very much love technology and friendships in horror movies, Josh’s account shows up and begs them to help him. They eventually blame a virus and believe his computer must still be logged in and that’s why it’s happening.
Stone heads out to log off Josh’s computer, because Mattie can’t handle going to his apartment again. Why in the world is his stuff still in the apartment? Even if he doesn’t have family to collect his things, I don’t believe his landlord would want the apartment standing empty. (This is particularly true when we learn he hasn’t paid rent in two months.) Still, it’s as dark and dirty as ever, but Josh’s computer is gone and his bedroom is strangely closed off with red tape. Stone starts to hear weird noises and goes to investigate instead of fleeing. He is promptly attacked by a ghost who swallows his soul – his will to live.
Izzy spends some time reassuring Mattie that Josh’s suicide wasn’t her fault, and then they worry about Stone, who hasn’t shown up for class. Mattie is still getting those messages from Josh, too, IMs and also email. When Mattie finally reaches Stone over the phone, he’s acting weird and reminds her a lot of how Josh was before he killed himself. Since Stone obviously hasn’t taken care of things, Mattie goes to Josh’s to turn off his computer, but when she gets there, the landlord has cleaned it and gotten rid of most of his stuff. When Mattie asks about the computer, the landlord eventually admits that she sold it and gives Mattie the information.
This leads Mattie to Dexter, played by Ian Somerhalder. Dexter looks pretty good in his grease-stained clothes while working under the hood of a car. I didn’t expect that. In addition to being a mechanic, Dexter is a hacker, which shouldn’t be a surprise because half the characters are apparently hackers. Mattie accuses him of playing tricks on them, but he’s not even set up the computer yet, so that’s no explanation.
After she leaves, Dexter’s curiosity is piqued and he finally sets up Josh’s computer. When he turns it on, this text immediately pops up: Do you want to meet a ghost? He clicks on it and a grainy video appears. A dark human shape slow-motion glides onto screen and then a variety of dark, disturbing scenes about people flash through, ending on a scene with a guy who blows out his own brains.
Mattie gets a package from Josh, which was sent two days before his death and contains three rolls of red tape and a note that says the tape will keep them out, though he doesn’t know why. Nor does he explain who he means when he says “them.” She, Izzy, and Tim each take a roll of tape. At this point, the audience learns there has been a cluster of teen suicides in the area.
Dexter tracks down Mattie and tells her that Josh had some scary stuff on his computer. He shows her some of the video, which he says is a webcam feed. When Mattie asks how long he’s been watching the people in the video, Dexter says he thinks they’re actually watching him. Mattie doesn’t find this weird enough to drive her away, but it’s pretty freaky. Dexter accuses Josh of recording the strange videos and selling them online, but Mattie is having none of that and, as soon as Dexter learns that Josh killed himself, he immediately connects the videos with the suicide. Mattie’s having none of this, either. She wants him to erase Josh’s hard drive and leave her alone, but Dexter says that he’s tried and it didn’t work. He thinks Mattie should want to know what happened to Josh, but she’s scared and disbelieving and walks away.
On the bus the next day, her psychology professor tries to commit suicide by walking in front of the bus. If that weren’t enough to shake her up, she then sees someone jump off a tower to his death. Mattie’s not having such a great semester.
We’re then treated to the most stereotypical horror movie scene in a movie full of them, the unnecessary main female character in the bathroom scene. During Mattie’s bath, she has another nightmare about Josh and then sees a face in the water which quickly disappears.
When Mattie goes to see her therapist again, he thinks she’s imagining everything and that she came to see him specifically because she needed to hear someone tell her it wasn’t real and that she had to face it in order to heal. This explains why Mattie spends the rest of the movie investigating scary noises instead of fleeing in terror, but not why everyone else in the movie does the same thing. The world in this movie is full of stupid people.
Speaking of, Tim gets online to send a message to Stone asking where he is because they’re worried, and then asking where everyone is, because the campus is almost empty. Instead of a response, he gets asked if he wants to see a ghost. Because every single character in this damn movie is too curious for their own good – We already have dead cats, people! – he clicks the link and Stone momentarily comes onto the screen, looking much like a ghost himself. When he disappears, Tim’s computer looks like it is back to normal.
Mattie then gets another stereotypical horror movie bathroom scene, this time in a public campus restroom. The lights start flickering, the faucets drip, and she hears the door open but no one comes in. Then she thinks she hears someone in the stall next to hers, so he presses her ear to the wall between them. Who does this? Slightly creepy, significantly disgusting. Though she hears nothing, we can see that there’s a ghost on the other side, stroking the wall. Instead of running away, she goes to investigate. It’s not until she sees a ghost’s face come out from under the door of the stall that she finally flees.
Tim checks on Stone and finds his apartment unlocked and the inside dark. Bad sign. Time to run, Tim, but no, even after everything else he’s seen, he continues to investigate. First, he watches a disturbing video of Stone on the computer and then, when he looks around, he sees Stone getting sucked into the darkness of the wall. Finally, he runs away and tries to create a safe zone in his home by taping the windows and doors with red tape, but runs out before he’s done. This is why Josh sent Mattie three rolls to use herself. Guess you should have sprung for your own, Tim, instead of sharing! Of course, he then hears something outside the door and stupidly uncovers the peephole because he’s way too curious (and dumb) to live. Sure enough, there’s a ghost outside.
Mattie’s therapist is alone in his office when the lights start to dim and his computer goes wonky, then shows him an image of a woman, the same woman who is in a picture on his desk. His daughter? His wife? His sister? No matter, she’s already dead, I’m sure. When he hears noises, he too investigates rather than running away, but after his advice for Mattie earlier, this is understandable. Still, investigation leads to ghost leads to dead therapist.
Later, Mattie wakes to her computer asking if she’d like to meet a ghost. For the love of God, Mattie, don’t click it! But of course she does, and she sees a video of someone hanging from the ceiling, though it doesn’t show the person’s face. She’s then bombarded with the same images Dexter saw. She quickly unplugs the modem and the computer and turns the screen to face the wall, but then her printer starts spitting out pages that have dark patches on them but no specific images. She puts them together like a puzzle to reveal a creepy face, possibly the same one she saw in the bathtub.
After this, Mattie goes to Dexter, ready to know what happened to Josh. Dexter now claims that Josh’s hard drive was fried but he managed to retrieve most of the data. Apparently, Josh was stockpiling hardcore viruses and had hacked into Douglas’s system and then sent video correspondence to him apologizing and asking for help to stop what he had released. In the videos, Josh says that he’s working on a virus to stop whatever he set free and will meet Douglas in the library. Cue the opening scene of the movie. Seeing Josh talk about how he feels in the videos really pushes Pulse‘s premise that technology isolates and depresses us. It’s actually fairly painful to watch.
Mattie suggests that the ghosts and suicides are connected and Dexter doesn’t agree with her. This is an interesting twist from their earlier beliefs. Part of why Dexter doesn’t believe it is because the image Mattie shows him is a typical hacker prank. They continue their conversation in a diner for no good reason except to allow an end-of-the-world theorist to overhear them and break into their conversation. He agrees with Mattie and claims that people are idiots because they constantly broadcast where they are located, through their technology, but they think they’re safe. His end-of-the-world talk, while appropriate, isn’t really helping Mattie convince Dexter she’s right. Dexter does agree that they need to track down the mysterious Douglas.
Meanwhile, Izzy logs onto her computer, and I’m left wondering why these friends, who shared so much information earlier in the movie, have so deeply failed at warning each other away from technology. She gets the same message about meeting a ghost and, of course, she clicks it and gets the same creepy videos. Soon, I’m sure she will creepily be dead.
A news report lets us know that the Internet is being attacked worldwide by a virus and people are encouraged to stay away from technology unless they can help it to avoid spreading it farther. Someone posts a flyer on campus that explains the best way to seal a room with red tape. Finally, communication that doesn’t require technology, though I am wondering how many copies of the flyer exist and how it was made.
Izzy decides this is the perfect time to do laundry. On her way to the basement, she hears people sealing themselves into their apartments with tape. In the laundry room, she sees one girl, the first person she’s seen in the building for awhile, but the girl quickly leaves, obviously freaked out. Once Izzy is alone, the lights start flickering and then a dryer door creaks open and wet clothes are thrown out of it. They land with a wet, gloppy sound that is reminiscent of body parts hitting the floor. Izzy goes to investigate instead of running away and ghosts come crawling out of the dryer and attack her.
While he’s trying to track down Douglas, Dexter finds a flash drive taped inside Josh’s computer. It contains the virus Josh created. While Dexter runs it, ghosts start to appear in his computer lab.
Another news report says that the federal government is now getting involved with trying to stop the virus because emergency systems everywhere are shutting down.
Mattie is alone in her room when her computer chimes with a new message. This is odd because, last I saw, her computer was definitely not connected to the cable and possibly completely shut off, but I suppose computer ghosts can do anything. She checks it out and finds Tim on webcam, without any sound. Her phone rings a second later and that’s also Tim, saying he just wanted to see her. It’s very creepy and stalkery. Mattie runs to Izzy’s room looking for her, but Tim is on Izzy’s computer, too. Mattie finds Izzy in bed, being taken over by the same blackness that crawled through Josh’s veins. Even while Mattie is promising her she’ll be okay, Izzy tells Mattie the ghosts want what they can’t have, they want life, and then she explodes into dust. (I didn’t realize I was watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer.)
Terrified and alone, Mattie calls Dexter to come get her. When he picks her up, he tells her he’s found Douglas and thinks they can stop everything using the virus Josh created. They are momentarily sidelined by a car crashing into them, which destroys Dexter’s car, but they continue on foot. This scene seems very gratuitous, except to show the audience that the deaths are widespread and that the few survivors are heading for dead zones where technology can’t reach, because those zones are supposed to be safe. Despite the temptation of safety, Dexter and Mattie continue on in their search for Douglas.
When they find him, he’s sealed his home with red tape and is absolutely terrified. He explains that he was working on a telecommunications project that uncovered frequencies no one knew existed, and that’s how they found the ghosts. (I’m still not entirely convinced they are ghosts, though Izzy’s talk about what they want makes it seem like they are.) He refuses to help them, but Dexter and Mattie head off to the basement computer lab where the project’s servers are stored.
Once they get inside the building, they are immediately surrounded and separated by ghosts. Dexter tells Mattie to go on without him, despite the fact that she’s one of the few characters in the movie who isn’t considered a hardcore computer user. She gets stuck in the elevator with the ghosts for awhile, but eventually forces the doors open and climbs out. After the virus is uploaded, the system crashes and the ghosts vanish.
This is short-lived, however, because they’re back when the system reboots. Mattie and Dexter flee the city. They hear an official report that announces the location of several dead zones, which are now considered safe zones, where there are no Internet connections, cell phones, or televisions.
The cities now belong to the ghosts and, as Mattie says, though the world they know is gone, the will to live never dies. Except in all those people who killed themselves because the ghosts destroyed their will to live, I guess. This anti-technology ending isn’t really surprising for the movie, but is quite a letdown. It also seems very sudden, which I blame more on the odd pacing of the rest of the movie than on the ending itself.
You can find Pulse at Amazon.com.