Randy Russell is an actor and screenwriter. A purist, he will only work on actual film — American Job, The Pool, Soulmate, Modus Operandi, and the upcoming China Test Girls — so it all might end soon. His website is at rspeen.com.
I hate technology as much as Ted Kaczynski yet I’m in love with my smartphone, and while I wouldn’t kill someone for using their phone during a movie, I might beat them severely. But contradiction is the spice of art, so I was curious to check out the new Dutch thriller App, directed by Bobby Boermans. It’s being called “the first second screen movie,” as it allows you to use a phone app that syncs with the movie to provide additional, simultaneous content on your own screen to enhance the viewing experience.
You download the free app – for iOS and Android – and start it with the opening credits. Audio signals in the film’s soundtrack “that cannot be heard by the human ear” (it is not clear if dogs can hear them) are picked up by the mic in your phone, allowing the second-screen material to correspond with the movie. It is suggested you put your phone on vibrate and place it in your lap, and it alerts you whenever there is something happening so you can shift your attention to the phone screen. It’s the best movie extracurricular since Boogie’s penis in the popcorn box, in Diner.
If being allowed and encouraged to keep your phone on in a movie seems a little perverse, that’s the point, and it’s fun to be in on the experiment. Of course, the usual questions: what if your phone dies… do theaters have enough outlets? Will ushers have power cords to lend out? Is this simply One More Thing That Can Go Wrong?
For audience members without smartphones, the movie stands on its own and the extra content isn’t necessary to understand it, but you might find yourself looking over someone’s shoulder. The periodic intrusions are a lot of fun, and I’m guessing more effective than when William Castle wired certain seats to vibrate for theatrical exhibition of The Tingler.
If actors, historically, thought the transition from stage to screen was difficult, they have nothing on contemporary performers who must play off animated costars who aren’t even there, and consider the intricacies of HiDef and 3D, and now the “second screen.” While the camera is busy looking into the soul portrayed on the big screen, the audience might be focused on the small screen, reading texts between minor characters, or catching a different angle. On the other hand, this might open up opportunities for a unique talent that is “natural on the phone.”
It remains to be seen if this will become the next movie trend, like 3-D, but in this particular instance, what works is that the movie is about an app, as well as cellphones and technology. Along with being an action thriller, App is a modern horror story rooted in the fear and paranoia we all feel with technology that changes faster than we can keep up.
The protagonist, Anna, is a young student who drinks too much with her best friend Sophie, rides a motorcycle, and takes care of her hospitalized brother who is trying to walk again after being injured in a motorcycle accident. Following a wild, drunken party she wakes up with a terrible hangover and the cyber equivalent of pregnant: there is a strange app on her phone, with an icon that looks like an eyeball. It is a personal assistant program called IRIS, an appropriate name. Besides the colored part of the eye that controls the pupil, Iris is the Greek goddess who can travel between Heaven and the underworld. And Iris was the name of Travis Bickle’s murder rampage muse, played by young Jodie Foster, in Taxi Driver. It’s also SIRI spelled backward.
IRIS can be helpful, but she’s soon playing mischievous pranks. She sends out compromising emails, and spies on Anna in the shower and then projects the video on every screen of the computer store where Anna goes to try to remove the app. What is worse, IRIS doesn’t cover her mouth when she sneezes; everyone Anna goes near is in danger of having the app jump right onto their device, often with tragic results.
In Frankie Latina’s upcoming action thriller Snapshot, I play The Professor, a killer who “owns no weapons, but uses whatever is at hand,” so I kind of wanted to compare notes with IRIS. It didn’t take me long to see that I was overmatched, as she is incredibly cunning and opportunistic. She also has a much better sense of humor than The Professor, and 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL 9000.
The protagonist in a horror movie is often reduced to a whimpering mass of helplessness, asking, “Why me?” – not unlike most of us when we get the message: “Does not recognize login name,” or when you try to remove something from your computer and it bounces right back out of the trash with an annoying “boing.” This confusion, exacerbated by technology, is an existential horror similar to that from illness, accident, and disease.
Victims in horror movies are often guilty of something, even if nothing more than dishonesty, avarice, or premarital sex, but Anna doesn’t seem to be guilty of anything other than playing video phone games and forgetting to turn her ringer off in class, and having too much fun with the old farting elephant app. So her victim status is connected to nothing more than excessive phone use, and seems more or less random, and it’s all the more frightening for that – something everyone can relate to.
Anna (played by Dutch actress Hannah Hoekstra) is not one to just sit back and be victimized, however, and it’s pretty satisfying to watch the intensity with which she fights back. I haven’t seen anyone beat the shit out of someone with a motorcycle helmet like that since Sandra Oh in Sideways. And when confronted with that annoying cliché, the bitchy ER nurse (“Miss, you can’t go in there. Do you want me to call security?”), Anna lays her out with a perfectly executed elbow.
Throughout, of course, your phone is vibrating in your lap. In some instances you see alternative, security-cam-like viewpoints of the action. But I won’t divulge any more; no second-screen spoilers here. The thing that struck me as creepiest, though, was the way IRIS just sat there while not engaged, the icon a pulsating, stylized eyeball on my phone, looking up at me. Was it looking up at me? Are we all a big test audience?
Besides triggering my natural paranoiac tendencies, it also recalled a weird experimental film description from the footnoted filmography of James O. Incandenza from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. In a partially animated film titled Cage III – Free Show, spectators at a carnival watch performers undergo degradations so grotesque as to cause the spectators to be transformed into gigantic eyeballs in chairs. On the other side of the side of the tent, fairgoers are invited to undergo degradations – which will then allow them to witness spectators turn into gigantic eyeballs.
Film is a voyeuristic medium, and it’s common to watch a voyeur watch somebody – something we’re familiar and comfortable with – though if we really thought about it could feel a little pervy. But add to that what might be a camera watching us watching the voyeur watching, it starts to feel, if not perverse, a little insane. And that, for me, was the creepy chill that really enhanced App.
By the end of the film you’ll have had a good time, you and your friends will be smiling, joking – then nervously deleting the app from your phones. I haven’t tried to delete mine yet, and it feels a little like living dangerously. But I’m sure IRIS will go with no complaints.