CGI is a visual tool like any other in a filmmaker’s repertoire, but it holds a unique position in the current landscape as a signifier of laziness and apathetically commercial tendencies. Still, its existence is evidence of its capability. Computer generated images are most often seen as a shortcut to realism, shunning both the ingenuity required to make fulfilling images without technology and the unique aesthetic of images that knowingly fail at realism but instead thrive in their own being. The practical effects that horror fans applaud have something to do with quality – a real object with weight at least must move with realism even if it doesn’t look quite like what it’s imitating – but they also stand for a pride in movie magic, a celebration of the trick and all the mechanical and artistic genius behind it. CGI, mouse clicks painting over a green screen, can feel cheap at best and buy a high speed ticket to the uncanny valley at worst. In the fashion of true horror movie resourcefulness, that is exactly the appeal Kiyoshi Kurosawa saw in it.
Pulse is a movie about the internet. Its characters are afflicted by a weird alienation even in others’ company. It is always seeking a closeness with others that tosses them into the realm of the afterlife, reminding them of their own inconsolable isolation and driving them to simply vanish. At the point that their death is witnessed, a glimpse of their body appears before their spirit is turned into a messy shadow on the wall. The sound editing in these morbid, transitory scenes is purposefully intimate and horrifying, whispers of ‘Help me’ overtaking the worldly noise. The fear of death as loneliness coats the film in a thick atmosphere that more than makes up for a less than amazing story. The computer simulated representation of humanity that drives the first student insane depicts dots flying around each other, programmed to die if they touch and be pulled in again if they travel too far. The internet as a tool of public use only artificially expands connections, sending its users into a horrifying and deep spiral through understanding the precarious nature of automating our lives’ fulfilling connections.
The vacant, blue dread that fills the screen of Pulse is its crowning achievement, an experience that for the majority of the film completely overwhelms the viewer in its loneliness. Towards the end, the film veers strangely towards focusing on its plot above all; from an odd CGI plane crash onwards the mood is never the same. It is especially frustrating with the context of how well technology is used earlier in the film in constructing an eerily synthetic image. The repeated bus rides comprised of unusual angles and an obviously green screened road resting in its windows are a bare confirmation of the increasingly artificial quality of its characters’ lives. That beautifully terrible artifice reaches its apex in one scene where one of the first victim’s friends has headed into one of the dreaded red tape rooms. As he stands staring at the wall, behind him a shadow emerges from the wall – the reversal of the sudden dissipations of friends – and she begins slowly walking towards and paralyzing him. There is something uncanny about her gait even without the excessive lethargy with which she moves, something too close to being human to be as horrible as she is. As he hides under the couch, her fingers approach the top of the seat at their inevitable rate. Her face, weird, computer generated, and sterile, pokes in a perfectly straight line into his line of sight. In complete control of its strangeness, Pulse channels the discomfort of CGI into the terror of seeing a false replication of something that hopes to be the essence of reality.