Sunday, November 11, 2018

Communicating with the Dead: The American Pulse Franchise

After the success of The Ring (followed by the success of The Grudge,) the Hollywood money machine was emboldened to remake every J-horror or J-horror influenced film that they could find. It didn’t matter how good or bad the source material was, if it made money or was even warmly regarded critically, it was fodder for the Hollywood slaughter. This is where Kairo, also known as Pulse, comes into play. The original film is a stark and artistic horror film, intent on crafting vague messages about the relationship between society and technology, that has earned its fair share of mixed reactions since its release. For one, I am a massive fan of Kairo and you are welcome to dig into my review of the Arrow Video Blu Ray release of the film HERE for some more in-depth context to understand the rest of this article and review. There will often be comparisons to it through the next section that focuses on the first entry of the American Pulse series, but it felt necessary to address some of the context for the following. It’s during this time frame that Kurosawa’s Kairo was picked for a Hollywood adaption and the results are interesting at best and insulting at worst.

PULSE (2006)
Director: Jim Sonzero
Notable Cast: Kristen Bell, Ian Somerhalder, Christina Milian, Rick Gozalez, Jonathan Tucker, Samm Levine, Octavia Spencer, Ron Rifkin, Brad Dourif

To be honest, the American remake, Pulse, is fascinating in how remarkably off the mark it is in almost all regards. Although it has a credit as being co-written by Wes Craven (who wrote a script and was at one point attached to direct the film before it was given to its director Sonzero) the film feels as though it is completely overwritten and overproduced in a variety of ways. It’s a hollow experience, lacking the layering of its source film, and it attempts to fill its missing core with cheap jump scares and music video visual style. Oddly enough, many of its issues can be sourced to the strange fact that Pulse both over explains and under-utilizes its story. Needless to say, even without comparing it to Kairo, Pulse is a chore to sit through.

As with a lot of poorly received and poorly made films, the fault usually comes down on the director and, honestly, Sonzero is certainly an odd choice for the film. It’s his directorial debut, after spending years as a music video director, and Pulse tries extraordinarily hard to be stylish and 2006’s version of ‘cool.’ Essentially, that means it uses white flash editing, sub-par CGI ghosts that do ridiculous things to scare the audience, and the film also features a damn near black and white color desaturation visual look that does it no favors as it zaps a lot of potentially interesting visuals into a bleak realm of meh. Of course, the performances range from baffling to cliché, occasionally meandering to areas of silly while the film completely misuses a cameo from the brilliant Brad Dourif. When it comes to style, Pulse just force feeds often illogical and problematic choices to the audience.

Yet, for all of the painstaking ways that Pulse misuses its cast and slathers everything in a (now dated) style, these are not even the worst parts about the film. The script and narrative of Pulse is awkward. Where the original film leaves a lot of plotting of the film vague, ruminating on the affect of interconnectivity and technology on the personal and social conscience as it focuses on narrative, Pulse instead jams in a plethora of college student protagonists that no one cares for, overexplains every corner of the plot, adds in needless cliché horror sequences for the sake of eye-rolling jump scares (specifically a sequence in the dorm laundry room is irritatingly generic filler,) and just for the sake of giving its main heroine some kind of emotional arc decides to throw in a completely unbelievable pseudo-romantic subplot. By the time it gets to the finale, which is filled with some terrible ghost CGI, a slightly surrealistic spin in a few moments, and an ending that leaves an audience wondering if there was a reason to even stay to the credits, Pulse has tested the patience of its viewers.

Pulse was not a huge success. Considering how much money was poured into the film (it’s stated in some places that Pulse cost just over $20 million to make,) it only made roughly $30 million dollars in the box office and it was almost universally panned by critics. The film has some moments in it where it may have hooked in a few cult cinephiles, which I suppose is worth something. It’s unintentionally hilarious at times and it attempts to convert its message into a general fear of technology might feel fresh to those unfamiliar with the original, but it’s hardly a film that seemingly called for a franchise. However, Dimension was inspired (I guess) and decided to pump out two direct to home video sequels to this film. Which brings us to the next part…

Director: Joel Soisson
Notable Cast: Jamie Bamber, Georgina Rylance, Karley Scott Collins, Boti Bliss, Todd Giebenhain, Lee Garlington

In terms of unnecessary sequels, Pulse 2: Afterlife (the film just has the title Pulse 2 on it) is not inherently a bad idea in concept. After the fall of civilization, the film follows a young girl and her wayward father as they attempt to find safety. The film attempts to create an interesting parallel about the deconstruction of the family dynamic with the current ghost-pocalypse that is happening in the world and it’s not a bad idea. That is, if you’re willing to read into it about the idea of collapsing communication. The problem that arises within Pulse 2 is…well, everything else.

For starters, despite an interesting idea at its core, there is no rhyme or reason to any of the plot and narrative. It seemingly wanders around, adding in poor character decisions, undermining any logic there was at all about the ghosts from the first film, and seemingly throwing in the worst set of characters to ever follow in this world. It’s as if every idea, motive, and plot progression is half baked and performed by a group of actors that have no direction and are trying to figure it out as they go. The secondary characters don’t fare any better and most feel like they exist for the sake of pushing forward the plot and narrative versus creating the world that Pulse 2 desperately wants to develop. Some of the performances seem decent, but when their characters are so underdeveloped and haphazardly executed then it leaves an audience wondering what the hell the purpose of the film is, beyond a failed concept. Plot wise, it just exists, riding on some of the concepts of the first Pulse, but hardly adhering to anything beyond that.

To make matters worse, the film looks awful. It’s filmed in a way where almost every background is digitally added via green screen, so nothing looks real and it all seems like a stylistic choice that goes horrifically wrong. Maybe there was an intent that the world no longer feels like the world we know and that everything is meant to feel off, but if that’s the case then it still fails because it’s not quite clear enough if that is the intent.  The visual effects look like they are made for TV and the special effects, when they show up underneath the shoddy CGI, are somewhat laughable. Anything that might have been remotely atmospheric or visually interesting is swept under the rug for a generic tone and look.

Despite the problems that Pulse has, Pulse 2 makes it look like pristine cinematic material. This film has no real sense of tension, it’s completely and utterly illogical, it has a meandering narrative that does it no favors, and the style of the film is perplexingly bad. This is some bottom of the barrel straight to video material and one has to wonder if the film is meant to parallel the digital ghosts that suck the life out of their victims. That’s what Pulse 2 does. It sucks the life from its audience. It leaves them feeling like there’s no meaning or purpose to anything anymore. The only thing that could make it more confusing would be a sequel.  Naturally, that means we also ended up with another sequel from the same director and that brings us to our next one….

Director: Joel Soisson
Notable Cast: Brittany Finamore, Karley Scott Collins, Rider Strong, Georgina Rylance, Todd Giebenhain, Thomas Merdis, William Prael, Laura Cayouette, Diane Ayala Golder, Noureen DeWulf

After starting off by introducing us to Adam, aka Rider Strong from Cabin Fever and Boy Meets World fame, and how his life crumbles in front of him during the start of the ghost-pocalypse, Pulse 3 (which I guess is subtitled Invasion cause…reasons?) actually makes its first smart move by leaping forward in time to reveal our lead character for the rest of the film is actually the little girl from the previous entry. That’s right. Pulse 3 is a direct sequel to Pulse 2, which only makes sense seeing as writer/director Soisson is back for this one. Like the previous entry, when you boil down this second sequel, there is quite a few interesting ideas to like. The initial glimpse into the refugee camp, the continuation of being a road/journey narrative for the young women when she decides to try and find Adam in the city, and the finale features an intriguing glimpse into how the military and remnants of society at looking to close the ghost hole that unleashed the end of the world.

Also likes its predecessor, Pulse 3 suffers VERY GREATLY from not being able to execute those ideas. Mainly, there is this sense that permeates the entire run time that the film is trying very hard to add in some kind of thematic depth in a movie that ultimately plays out like a SYFY original. It doesn’t help when odd things like ghost record players appear (yeah, that’s awkward) and a strange device is revealed in the third act that can bring the dead back to life from the other side…cause science? For everything that is intriguing in concept, Pulse 3 fumbles two to three times in getting the message across for it to work. The old man on the farm who still plants cotton because that’s what he does? Possible great commentary about purpose. Acting and the reveal that he’s crazy? Mishandled and laughable. The crazy survivalist at the end? Interesting idea about revenge? Nah, just over-explanation and a build to a very predictable and somewhat baffling finale which, again, leaves the audience debating if life goes on after watching three of these films.

Truthfully, with some of the ideas presented in Pulse 3, I wish there was more to enjoy about it. Even some of the performances are decent, particularly from the lead – which could be that she looked so much better than most of the other performers, but overall in those regards the film is a step up from Pulse 2. Once again, director Soisson uses the insane idea of filming most of the film in front of a green screen and the effect is just as terrible as it was in the last one. Yada, yada, yada, the style remains questionable at best and teeth clenching at worst.

At this point, there does not seem to be any plans to continue the American Pulse franchise or plans to reboot it. With both The Ring and The Grudge getting reboots in the last couple of years, Rings and the upcoming Grudge, respectively, it’s not necessarily out of the realm of possibility that Pulse gets another chance to make a splash. Considering how intriguing and dynamic the original concept is, one could only hope that if it does happen they run with the core ideas and make their own series that at least contains some logic and execution. Not that anyone should be desperate for that. After three of these films, there is a part of me that hopes this series is done. It didn’t deserve this many films.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

No comments:

Post a Comment