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When did genre films get so listless? Back in the day, fear and the frantic seemed to get along swimmingly, resulting in the 'rollercoaster' renaming of many a scary movie experience. Yet ever since J-horror came along and proved that terror could be mined out of something as static as a creepy crawly dark-haired girl with slimy skin and black orb eyes, dread has gone all limp and lethargic. Where once a killer sliced and diced away with reckless abandon, blotting out the cinematic sun with his or her antagonistic arterial spray, the modern contemporary fright fest is all about attempted mood and overreaching arch atmospherics. Sometimes, it works (Silent Hill). Other times, it tests the patience of even the more tolerant macabre maven. Digging deep into the seemingly bottomless pit of Asian creature features, Pulse provides yet another chance for America filmmakers to show how far off the moviemaking mark their efforts can actually be. Instead of creating a thrilling, thought-provoking companion piece to Kairo, Kiyoshi Kurosawa's 2001 original look at technology run amok, what we end up with is yet another example of scarefest as sleeping pill. Thrills don't get any more inert than in this erroneous effort.
When she finds her boyfriend dead, psychology student Mattie Webber starts to blame herself. She feels she should have been there for him, instead of shunning his attempts at intimacy and understanding. When a weird email arrives, supposedly sent by her late beau, Mattie looks to recover his computer and find out who's perpetrating such a cruel hoax. Turns out, the guy who bought it – Dexter McCarthy - has yet to set the machine up. When he does, Dex discovers a hard drive loaded with hacker handiwork, and a strange "virus" that doesn't really do what your typical computer bug does. Apparently, this program opens up a doorway to another dimension, allowing uneasy spirits to slip into the real world and drain the life force out of unsuspecting humans. And now, with the program's infecting technology spreading world wide, a ghost-driven apocalypse is in the works. As more and more people die by their own hand, Mattie sees her friends fall victim to the suicide-inducing spooks. She and Dexter must find the geek who originally found the virus, or the planet is doomed to die. These uneasy specters won't rest until they have destroyed the living – and they will make their presence known in every Pulse of post-modern society's slave-like love of technology.
The problems with Pulse are clearly defined, especially within the approach taken by the American minds behind this erratic, routine revamp of the Asia tech terror classic. Kairo was a slow, sinister meditation on life and death, a disturbing denunciation of technology as a soulless, heartless destroyer of humanity. With its epic scope and subtle storytelling, Kiyoshi Kurosawa created a cinematic snowball that took a relatively unbelievable premise (a website that promises a paranormal encounter) and allowed seemingly random elements to build on and expand his concepts until they meshed to find the unsettled universality in people's approach to mortality. In the Tinsel Town take on the subject matter, scripters Ray Wright and Wes Craven (yes, THAT Wes Craven) expand on the connectivity of our new post-millennial planet, but then purposefully avoid the rest of Kurosawa's concerns. The result is a typical J-horror spook show with unlimited night and weekend minutes. In Kairo, the science was secondary to the reasons behind the oncoming apocalypse. In Pulse, there are so many shots of cellphones, laptops and PDAs that you keep looking for labels to indicate which corporations are benefiting from all this product placement. By concentrating on this single, rather insignificant facet, Pulse does manage to modify Kurosawa's traditionalism. But that's about all.
In the hands of newcomer Jim Sonzero, Pulse plays into all the creaky clichés that have come to cannibalize the entire Eastern horror experience. The cinematography suggests a world so blue, brown and green that algae should be growing on every surface, while desaturated colors render the actors as undead as their surroundings – and their enemies. The sinister spirits causing people to kill themselves (as a consequence of what appears to be nothing more than a supernatural cosmic snit) are rejected demons from the Aphex Twin's "Come to Daddy", and surfaces of all kinds are stained with the shadows of souls vanquished and vanished. Kurosawa used the image (and much of his fantastic, fatalistic finale) as a purposeful comment on nuclear holocaust and the way in which the world appears to be resolutely destroying itself. Pulse provides these visions as jumping off points for endless Hollywood hokum. The whole virus/hacker angle is overdone and vastly under-explained – just a lot of "we read Wired" buzzwords and twerp techo speak. Our college student characters tend to be dreary and indefinable, never given personalities beyond their tragic telltale stereotyping (black man who bootlegs albums, white nerd who pines for unapproachable gal) and the story spends so much time in its random shots of population-less exteriors that any depth is slowly dissolved and drained away.
This doesn't mean that Pulse is completely useless. There are some genuinely inventive moments in this otherwise unimpressive undertaking. Sonzero restages a couple of iconic moments from Kairo, including a tower suicide and a crashing plane (the former only now featured on this uncut DVD, after being deemed "too intense" for a PG-13 release) and adds his own original ideas with a spirit world awash in ghostly arms and a spider walking creature crawling out of an industrial dryer. And his actors are more than capable. Kristin "Veronica Mars" Bell plays lost and disquieted very well, and her partner in panic, Ian "Lost" Somerhalder handles the thankless role of hunk/hero/hanger-on with non-grating aplomb. But the rest of the cast is completely forgettable, left to languish in underwritten scenes rife with superfluous slang and mediocre "meet cute" conceits. Indeed, Pulse feels like it was pulled out of a glossary of generic terror tableaus, a book currently in the possession of recognizable rejects like Akiva Goldsman or John Fasano. All Craven and Wright do is gussy up the goings-on with nods to text messaging and occasional Luddite leanings. Some films just can't manage a remake and come out intact. Anyone foolish enough to think Kairo was just another Japanese journey into the spirit world missed the point of said movie, entirely. Pulse properly illustrates such a cinematic misunderstanding.
Arriving from Dimension Films and Genius Productions, Pulse looks perfectly presentable in this 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Though the visuals occasionally feel like the fever dreams of a seasick sailor, there is a discernible richness to many of the compositions. There is also a lot of post-production fiddling with the image, resulting in a movie that occasionally looks fake and formless. Devoid of most discernible defects (though some slight edge enhancement seems to plague a couple of sequences) Pulse on DVD is professional and presentable.
Utilizing the spatial ambiance present in a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, Pulse actually sounds much better than it looks. Director Sonzero makes some interesting choices – at least aurally – with this film. Moments of terror come tripping out of the channels, while quiet moments still have a sonic aura of dread. Granted, the sludgy soundtrack music can be aggravating at times, but at least the dialogue is discernible, and the appropriate macabre mood is maintained throughout.
Decked out with two commentaries, a collection of deleted/additional scenes and a trio of EPK-esque Making-Ofs, the added content included on the DVD release of Pulse is serviceable and solid. It is important to note that this is not the theatrical version of the film. This is the "Unrated" presentation, which mean we get more shots of the Internet suicides (including a juicy gunshot to the head and a woman hacking away at her arms) and, as mentioned before, the infamous tower jump. There is no real difference in running time, so the overall effect of the reinserted material is minimal. As for the extras, both alternative narrative tracks are enlightening and fun. The first features Sonzero and F/X make-up maestro Gary Tunnicliffe and is a hands-on discussion, with lots of insight into creative decisions, critical response and the problems of helming a first feature film. The second offering features Producers Mike Leahy and Joel Soisson, Line Producer Ron Vecchiarelli, Visual Effects Supervisor Kevin O'Neill, Editor Kirk Morri, and Actor Samm Levine. It's an anecdote-laden ride through foreign filmmaking 101. Pulse was shot in Romania, and the gang has lots of personal opinions about the former Eastern Block locale. Filled with self-deprecating humor and hilarious high spirits, it makes for a fine companion piece to Sonzero's more solemn and straightforward effort.
As for the rest of the bonus features, they are rather pedestrian. The deleted material adds nothing of value, and the varying takes on several key scenes (including a mislabeled – and quite lame – 'alternate ending') argue for the power of editing to make or break a sequence. The three Behind the Scenes featurettes are equally unexceptional. Perhaps the most laughable is the attempt by a couple of questionable experts to prove that something like Pulse – spirits making contact via technology – can actually happen. Yeah...right. Add the standard trailer to all of the palpable puff piece provisions and you've got a mundane movie accented by similarly wearisome digital bits. Only the commentaries should be considered solid supplemental material.
There will be some who feel that Pulse improves on Kairo's slow moving, ambiguous fear factors to wind up a wonderfully effective creepfest. A few may even forgive the faults that director Jim Sonzero infuses into the film and rank it right up there with the rest of the Americanized J-horror genre. Balanced somewhere behind good and groan inducing, this critic finds it hard to completely love, or absolutely loathe, this uneven effort. As a result, the fine line between a rating of Recommended and Rent It becomes even thinner, and thornier. The bonus features and tech specs more or less salvage the sloppy filmmaking, but Pulse does have a few moments worthy of any dread defenders time. Feeling slightly generous, the final score ends up on the slightly non-compulsory side of Recommended. But remember, all this comes with a huge, cavernous caveat. If you adored the first film (as this critic did) you will see nothing but superficiality in the regressive retelling. On the other hand, if you still think a pasty-faced ghoul with gray gangrenous skin is the ultimate in cinematic shocks, Pulse will provide some potent motion picture panic.
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