The latest Americanized remake of a Japanese horror film, "Pulse" lacks the storytelling elegance and scare-factor of 2002's "The Ring
," the slow-burn moodiness of 2004's "The Grudge
," and the haunting thematic layers of 2005's "Dark Water
." A suspected victim of post-production tinkering and last-minute editingits original theatrical release date was last March and, until a couple weeks ago, was still rated Rthe film's occasional building of unrest is ultimately no match for its cryptically developed story and a maddening non-ending that is unequivocally dissatisfying. In spinning a cautionary tale for the modern agehumanity's abuse of wireless technology leads to a virus that sucks the life out of the userdirector Jim Sonzero fumbles by never adequately setting up who or what the villain is, nor does he lay down any ground rules for the audience to follow. In turn, "Pulse" fails to find the relevancy it desires and the momentum it needs, all the while unleashing upon the viewer a series of hoary teen thriller clichés and cheap throwaway jump scares.
When her boyfriend Josh (Jonathan Tucker) unexpectedly commits suicide under suspicious circumstances, psychology student Mattie Webber (Kristen Bell) is overcome with the guilt of feeling as if she could have done something to stop him. After she and friends Izzie (Christina Milian), Tim (Samm Levine) and Stone (Rick Gonzalez) all receive frightening Instant Messages from Josh beyond the grave, Mattie is certain that there's more to the story than meets the eye. Tracking down Josh's recently-sold computer to new owner Dexter (Ian Somerhalder), Mattie uncovers a deadly technological virus that is quickly spreading across the globe, using all things wi-fi as portals between the worlds of the living and the dead.
Written by Ray Wright and prolific director Wes Craven (2005's "Red Eye
"), "Pulse" doesn't make clear who the culprit actually is. Are the villains actual dead people using technology as a gateway to the living plane of existence, or is the villain the literal virus, manifesting itself in ghostly human forms? Whatever the case, why do all of the apparitions look like pasty bald men, and what do they expect to do once they have successfully infected and murdered the entire world population? How are some people so easily infected, while others who use computers and cell phones just as much, like Mattie and Dexter, able to continually allude the virus? Moreover, is a washing machine a viable piece of wireless technology? Horror movies don't require pat answers and easy solutionsthat is often what makes the best ones so frighteningbut it helps to let the audience know what the characters are up against.
Whatever points "Pulse" wants to make about the twenty-first century's relationship with advanced forms of communication are overshadowed by standard-issue horror sequences where characters walk into rooms to investigate strange noises and are then attacked by the viral spirits. Some individual moments are suitably atmospheric and creepy, but they are so predictable that one can actually count down to the exact beat in which something springs out at the camera. It becomes repetitive, and because each of these scenes cut out before working up a potent level of terror, they are instantly disposable. The whole film is like that, setting itself up for a payoff that doesn't arrive. The anticlimactic finale is the worst offender of this, having never kicked into high gear before director Jim Sonzero paints himself into a corner, throws his hands up in defeat, and cues the end credits. Jarring and frustrating in the extreme, if you have seen the descriptive original theatrical trailer for "Pulse," you have seen the beginning, the middle, and the end of the picture.
Kristen Bell (2004's "Spartan
"), downright brilliant as the title character on TV's "Veronica Mars," doesn't even break a sweat as she takes on her first leading role in a major theatrical release. Bell is enormously appealing, immensely likable, and sells every emotion that Mattie faces as she watches her friend die around her. It's too bad there is clearly some further character development on the cutting-room floor, because Bell shouldn't need to settle for lesser parts that shine a light on how outstanding her television work is. For example, it is suggested that Mattie has a tense relationship with her mom, who is only ever heard on her answering machine, but nothing is done with this plot point. She also frequents a man (Ron Rifkin) to talk about her problems, but his area of professionis he a doctor, or a shrink, or a guidance counselor, or a concerned professor?remains open to interpretation. As Dexter, Ian Somerhalder (2002's "The Rules of Attraction
") blandly plays a role so undistinguished that the only thing ever learned about him is that he is a "procrastinator." And Christina Milian (2005's "Be Cool
"), as Mattie's best friend and dormmate Izzie, comes in and out of the picture at random, disappearing for long stretches without any explanation as to where she is.
For a film about the rise of Armageddon, the fall of civilization comes too suddenly and nonchalantly, while the budget's limited means and skuzzy Romanian locations (posing as Anywhere, U.S.A.) are unable to bring scope and a sense of finality to its end-of-days scenario. It's just as well, since "Pulse" confuses perpetual gloom as a provocative plot element and is the type of silly pic where a person can walk into a library in the middle of the day and have to feel his way around because it's so dark. The short order of lightbulbs notwithstanding, "Pulse" is handsomely mounted and does rustle up feelings of dread that permeate in the viewer despite the incoherent narrative. When all the cards have been dealt, however, the movie leads to an unrewarding dead end where little seems to have been thought out in advance. Watching "Pulse," one must conclude that this finished product isn't quite what anyonenot the writers, the director, the producers, or the actorsoriginally had in mind.