Considering the narrative obliqueness of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s original Pulse, it was inevitable that an American remake would try to streamline its apocalyptic otherworldliness through explication. And true to form, Jim Sonzero’s version eventually falls back on attempting to elucidate the reasons behind its story’s invasion of the undead with answers neither compelling nor necessary, capped off by closing narration that hammers home points that have been implicitly suggested from the outset. Yet before such ill-advised detours into explanatory handholding, this domestic redo of Kurosawa’s magnificent ghost story is a reasonably sinister scary movie that faithfully taps into its predecessor’s irrational, existential dread and distrust of technology. Co-written by Wes Craven, Sonzero’s film concerns the efforts of Mattie (Veronica Mars’s Kristen Bell, nicely balancing anxiety and determination) and Dexter (vacant-looking Lost alum Ian Somerhalder) to stop a worldwide plague of malicious phantoms brought about by the imprudent computer hacking of Mattie’s ex-boyfriend Josh (Jonathan Tucker) who, terrorized by pasty, screeching ghouls, hung himself in front of his former love.
From its opening shots of a college campus populated by introverted laptop and PDA-wielding students, to Mattie’s opinion that her relationship with Josh ended because it had been “reduced to text messaging,” to the subsequent, inexplicable arrival of somnambulant specters on computer monitors that aren’t plugged into the Internet, Pulse crafts an eerie vision of dawning techno-hell, one in which the communicative devices designed to bring people together have, instead, fostered nothing but loneliness and social alienation. It’s a theme that lurks within many of J-horror’s finest, and remains prevalent throughout Sorezno’s supernatural thriller thanks to repeated scenes in which (consistently one-dimensional) characters either fail to successfully converse via phones or IM’ing, or falter in their endeavors to have meaningful face-to-face dialogues with those they care most about. In this estrangement-infected light, the creatures’ appetite for the living’s life force appears to be not simply a random, ghastly desire but, rather, a craving to reconnect with their essential (corporeality) selves—bodies with which they had, thanks to constant reliance on machinery for human interaction, fundamentally lost touch.
As a director, Sonzero has neither Kurosawa’s command of the widescreen frame nor flair for sustaining a mood of disconcerting unreality, and there are moments during which the film seems to lack basic visual continuity (regarding actors’ clothing and hairstyles), a shortcoming likely attributable to its history of production delays and re-shoots. Nonetheless, if his helter-skelter Ring-like visual effects (employed for the jittery, shrieking fiends as well as Mattie’s nightmare sequences) occasionally mar the action’s creepily silent atmosphere, Sorenzo’s cinematographic blue-grey color palette effectively conveys a sense of the modern world slowly being drained of vitality by malevolently primal forces. And better still is his astute appropriation of Kurosawa’s most haunting imagery—a fiery airliner plummeting to the ground, rooms covered in red duct tape, a loose-limbed female spirit swaying toward a victim—and ability to match such sights with a memorably chilling one of his own involving Bell being engulfed by a sea of monstrous arms that, in totality, resemble a howling, hungry face.