The day I saw Pulse -- which, it must be noted, did not screen for critics -- I spent the morning dealing with Gmail having shut down my e-mail account as an 'automated security procedure' after I'd tried downloading my mail to Outlook. Then, at the gym, I stumbled on the new TreadClimber and nearly split my head open; after that, while text messaging to get show times on my phone, I failed to notice a change in the curb and almost went face-down in the street. So a horror film about modern technology trying to kill us felt like a nice fit for the day; certainly, it had been trying to annoy me to death for the past several hours.
Based on the 2001 Japanese horror film Kairo by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Pulse begins on a college campus: The kids there have all the gizmos and gadgets of modern life, they lived by frantically e-mailing and IM-ing each other. At one point, out for a night on the town, our heroine Mattie (Kristen Bell) gets a text message from her friend Tim (Samm Levine) -- who's sitting two chairs away. It's not funny to Mattie; she's worried about her boyfriend, Josh (Jonathan Tucker). "Our relationship has been reduced to text messaging ...", she notes to her friend Isabell (Christina Milian). "How tragic is that?"
Well, it's about to get a lot more so, as Josh has discovered a computer program -- on some server somewhere he was hacking around on -- that not only really seems to mess up his operating systems and desktop but also functions as a gateway for angry and unyielding undead forces to stalk the world in search of victims to slay; Josh is a victim of those unquiet and hungry spirits early, but he's not the last. There's a kernel of a good idea in Pulse -- and having not seen the Japanese original, I can't say if that film works with that kernel any more effectively than Pulse does -- but director Jim Sonzero never quite manages to bring that seed of an idea to full flower. As Mattie -- aided by Dexter (Ian Somerhalder), the computer whiz who bought all of Josh's old hardware -- discovers, Josh stole an experimental broadband connectivity program that would have allowed for data transfer at insanely high speeds, and also opens up frequencies that act as a portal for static-flickering electro-shades. So the good news is, movie downloading on demand could finally work; the bad news is that you'll be too busy running from gray, angry, howling techno-zombies to watch anything.
Pulse starts as a sort of horror chamber piece -- something's stalking the campus -- and then blows out to take the whole world in its grasping, nightmare grip. (And this isn't a casual image in my mind; Pulse's credits include not one but four stunt players listed as "stunt phantom arms.") But Sonzero's film can't quite make the switch from micro to macro as smoothly as one would like; we go from crowded cafeterias to desolate, wreckage-scattered streets a little too fast for true terror to build up, even if it is a shock. Sonzero and screenwriter Wes Craven -- yes, that Wes Craven -- would have benefited from a viewing of the '78 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where the scope goes from the individual to the collective with a steady, slow and unstoppable energy that makes the flesh on the back of your neck crawl long-distance, as opposed to Pulse's occasional short, sharp shocks.
The actors are okay -- Bell displays the pluck and fortitude she's parlayed to cult stardom on Veronica Mars, while Somerhalder churns out technical exposition like a pro, even if he is a graduate of the Josh Hartnett school of acting where eyebrows do all the emoting. Levine -- well-loved from Freaks and Geeks -- is a nice presence as well, even if the movie isn't entirely sure of what happens to him; it certainly doesn't convey his fate to us very clearly. Milan makes for an adequate girl-in-peril, while Rick Gonzales (last seen in Coach Carter) makes for a snappy warez dealer and movie-pirating fast-talker.
But like many other Japanese horror remakes, Pulse doesn't have the connective tissue of plotting and logic that makes a horror film unforgettable, as opposed to just scary. There's probably a great movie to be made about technological anxieties -- Stephen King's cell-phone zombie novel Cell has, unfortunately, fallen into the hands of horror hack extraordinaire Eli Roth (and it's not that great a novel to begin with), so that won't be it -- but someone's going to make it. If nothing else, Pulse will serve as a pretty good primer of mis-steps to avoid for any filmmaker who wants to really explore the connection between the toys and gee-gaws we have that work at the speed of light and the fears and terrors we have that come towards us at the speed of dark.