Pulse (2006)

Pulse PosterStarring Kristen Bell, Ian Somerhalder, Christina Milian, Samm Levine, Ron Rifkin, Zach Grenier

Directed by Jim Sonzero

Distributed by Dimension Films

8%. That’s the piteous rating Pulse is enjoying over on RottenTomatoes.com at the time of this writing. Critics are piling on the scorn, tripping over themselves to see who can be first to cleverly pronounce the film dead, void of a pulse. *zing!* It’s been a while since everyone was in such universal agreement about something being so worthy of their combined negativity. But is it really that bad? Uwe Boll bad? Bad enough to be considered one of our genre’s Giglis? In my opinion, absolutely not. In fact, up until the last 20 minutes or so, I was enjoying the hell out of Pulse. It was chugging along true to the spirit and utterly respectful of the original, one of my top five favorite Japanese films of all time. But I am quite -painfully- obviously in the minority. In truth, looking at the majority’s view of Pulse has me questioning my critiquing prowess somewhat. Which means this is probably going to read a bit more like an editorial (or, since we’re all on computers and it fits in so well with Pulse‘s overall theme, a blog) than a review as I try to figure out if I’m the one who’s out of touch or if instead it’s the other 92% of the world.

It happens to us all. You’re in a group, discussing movies. Everyone agrees that such-and-such is a “masterpiece” and so-and-so, the director, is a “genius.” Everyone but you that is. Or it’s the opposite. Everyone agrees that such-and-such is a “crapfest” and so-and-so, the director, is a “hack.” Although most of the comments directed toward Sonzero haven’t been quite so cutting, the general consensus is definitely that Pulse is one of the worst remakes to come along, if not the overall worst film of the year so far. Which I think does it — and its potential audience — a big disservice. It’s infinitely better than last year’s Dark Water (another one of my favorites in its original state) and at least as enjoyable as the second American Ring, which I also felt came nowhere near the quality of its Japanese forerunner.

Let’s take a look at the characters in Pulse and the situation in which they find themselves. Mattie (a slightly shaky but overall convincing Kristen Bell) is in the next room when her boy friend, Josh, joins the ever-increasing number of suicides suddenly occurring on their college campus and in several other metropolitan areas across the country. Slowly she and her remaining friends begin learning about and trying to make sense of what’s behind the suicides: ghosts who are coming back to earth via electronic means and sucking out the life force of folks like Josh who happen to be accessing their computers, cell phones, PDAs, etc. I work on the grounds of a local university, and that is one part of Pulse that is dead-on. Kids today are plugged in 24/7. Unless they’re sleeping, they are connected to each other in one way or another. You don’t see a young person out and about who isn’t either listening to an iPod, talking on the cell, or text messaging the person walking just a few feet ahead. If they’re in their dorm rooms, they are doing homework on their computers or screwing around on MySpace, downloading movies, or, big shock, messaging someone about something inane. The scenario put forth in Pulse isn’t at all out of the realm of possibility. Certainly it changes several of the key details, but as I said before, in spirit Pulse sticks closely to the premise of Kairo, its Japanese predecessor. People get black inky-looking patterns under their skin and turn into soot and ash; taping up doors and windows keeps the spirits at bay — for the most part; and the future seems quite bleak and apocalyptic indeed. Mark Plummer, the cinematographer, does a fine job of recreating Kairo‘s look and tone. The film’s palette and texture, along with its sound design, were near perfect for setting the required mood. I couldn’t have asked for much more from the first two thirds of Pulse. And I was the one kicking and screaming beforehand how I didn’t even want to pay a lousy $5.00 for the twilight screening.

Bell and Somerhalder in Pulse (click to see bigger)Eventually Mattie hooks up with Dexter (a rumpled Somerhalder who does what he can with what ultimately is a fairly thankless role; the movie does, after all, belong to Bell), the new owner of Josh’s computer, which was sold out from under his friends by his beyond stereotypical Black landlady. The less said about her, the better. Much stronger supporting characters are fleshed out by the other two adults in the cast: Rifkin and Grenier, especially the former as Mattie’s psych professor, who is trying to help her cope with Josh’s death and everything else that’s happening. As for the rest, Milian is mostly inoffensive; I’ve been a fan of Levine’s since his Freaks and Geeks days so was happy to see him get some work; and Rick Gonzalez only marginally overplays Stone, the last member of the group and the first to join Josh in the netherworld. Like Somerhalder, everyone pretty much rises to the level of the material they’re given. Which is to say that where the script is weak, so are the performances (Bell has the honor of delivering the most painful line in the film about someone being emphatically “alive“); but when it takes its time to let the viewer think about and maybe even empathize with the tortured beings who are trapped in our machines and need our energy — or souls, depending on your perspective — to get out, well, then we have the makings of a halfway decent film. Some of the images are quite creepy and disturbing, and if the members of the small audience I saw it with are any indication, Pulse could easily be responsible for some of this generation’s nightmares. But that’s only if people actually see the film and judge it for themselves. (And then take the next step and track down the original for the real deal.)

After some digging, Mattie and Dex figure out that a mysterious fellow named Zieglar is responsible for starting the whole mess via a nasty computer virus and that Josh had come up with a possible fix for it before hanging himself. Lo and behold, it is here, at the crucial moment in the film, when Mattie and Dex can either save the world or let it be taken over by the white Maynard-looking ghosts, that it does indeed . . . sadly . . . fall apart. The actor portraying Zieglar is horribly miscast and the character badly written, and what should be a final 15 minutes or so of flat-out horror become “Huh? That’s what all this was leading to?” It is fortunate though that while, yes, the ending is somewhat more positive than Kairo‘s, it doesn’t quite tie everything up all nice and neat with a big red bow. Perhaps the yet again re-cut DVD version I’ve heard murmurs about will do a better job of concluding the storyline and give the film some of its credibility back.

It’s true that ultimately Pulse is a disappointment. A blatant example of studio tinkering and tampering, focus groups gone awry, pandering to the PG-13 crowd, and all the other things that can ruin a film. But even so, I wouldn’t call it, as most of my contemporaries have, a complete failure. It’s 50/50 at its best and its worst. Basically, if you didn’t like Kairo (and I know plenty of people who fit that category), you won’t like Pulse. If you liked Kairo but have a thing against remakes on principle or otherwise, you also won’t like Pulse. But if you liked Kairo, tend to take each remake as it comes, and are having one of those once or twice a year kind of days when you’re feeling rather charitable, you could do a lot worse than to check Jim Sonzero’s Pulse. I can just about guarantee it’ll register more than most of the other flatlined offerings of remade J-horror being shoved down our throats these days.

2 1/2 out of 5

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And for another point of view in full-color, four-panel comic style, don’t miss
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Debi Moore

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