Remaking Kairo and translating its themes for English-language audiences, then, was an inherently difficult, if not an impossible, task, regardless of the talent involved. Wes Craven (Red-Eye, the Scream franchise, The Nightmare on Elm Street, The Hills Have Eyes) obviously thought Kairo strong enough to survive the translation across languages and cultures. Craven co-wrote, produced, and for a time, was attached as director for the English-language remake. For various reasons, Craven decided to forego and hired Jim Sonzero to take over the directing reins. A music video director working on his first film, Sonzero had to bring his A-game to make Pulse more than just DVD or cable fodder. If Sonzero brought his A-game (and that's a huge if), it frankly wasn't enough. Pulse is as listless and lifeless as the unscary ghosts who appear sporadically to remind moviegoers that they are, in fact, watching a horror film.
Josh (Jonathan Tucker), a computer hacker and student at an unnamed Ohio university, has stumbled on to something, something that's made him by turns desperate, paranoid, and suicidal. Mattie (Kristen Bell), Josh's ex-girlfriend, becomes troubled by Josh's eccentric, potentially self-destructive behavior. As Josh cuts himself off from Mattie and their other friends, Isabel (Christina Milian), in college for the parties and the men, Tim (Samm Levine), who openly pines for Mattie, and Stone (Rick Gonzalez), another college student, Mattie decides to pay Josh a visit at his off-campus apartment. Mattie finds Josh uncommunicative and despondent. Josh commits suicide, leaving Mattie and his friends to cope with whatever he's unleashed on the world.
At first, Mattie is too wrapped up in her grief to notice anything out of the ordinary. She tries to get help from a psychologist and professor at her university, Dr. Waterson (Ron Rifkin), but it does little good. Mattie and her friends get an IM message from someone identifying himself as Josh. First, they send Stone to investigate. He doesn't return. Assuming it's a prank, Mattie tracks Josh's computer to its new owner, Dexter (Ian Somerhalder), an auto mechanic/computer geek who makes a rundown warehouse his home. When confronted, Dexter claims he didn't send the text message. Mattie's other friends begin to fall prey to whatever illness or virus affected Josh. Mattie and Dexter soon discover that the problem is larger, much larger, than they anticipated: a suicide epidemic has begun to sweep through the city.
Story wise, Pulse doesn't so much move from plot point to point, with the sporadic, perfunctory stab at characterization (all we know about the characters is that they're in college and they're friends), as much as linger superficially on computer monitors, cell phones, PDAs, and other electronic equipment, haphazardly inserting the odd shadow or white-faced flickering ghost to ratchet up the anticipatory tension and the existential dread to mirror Kairo, all in an effort to cash in on the waning J-horror/remake trend. Sonzero's decision to open right away with a dark, muted color palette gives viewers a sense that the world is already lost. Sonzero would have done better starting with a less restrained, more vibrant color palette, then eliminating specific colors or tones as the inevitable slide toward apocalypse would demand.
Craven and Wright also erred in following the approach Kurosawa took in the original, focusing on a handful of characters while a slow-motion apocalypse happened mostly offscreen, with information about the scope of the "invasion" delivered via television or radio news. While focusing on a handful of characters makes obvious sense for budgetary reasons (Pulse was made in Bucharest, Romania to cut down on costs) and somewhat on a story level (to increase the sense of claustrophobia and dread), it's also likely to leave moviegoers (or video renters) eager to see events as they unfold, rather than described in dialogue, feeling cheated. One or two wider shots of the city as it deteriorated into chaos would have been a step in the right direction (not by much, though).
Despite running 90 minutes (including five-plus minutes worth of credits), Pulse feels almost twice as long, thanks to glacial pacing. Pulse moves so slowly it's hard not to feel that Craven and his co-screenwriter, Ray Wright, padded out the running time with superfluous or overlong scenes just to get to the obligatory 90-minute mark. The third or fourth time we see a character leisurely walking down a dark, underlit corridor (no one seems to pay their light bills in this unnamed Ohio college town), all tension or suspense is gone. Likewise when characters act illogically (e.g., doing laundry as the world around them slips inexorably into chaos) and they have to be dispatched to get down to the one or two survivors necessary for the third act showdown. Too bad neither Craven nor Wright could think up a meaningful payoff for them and, by extension, for us as well.
© Mel Valentin, 28th January, 2006
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