Were it not for one showy transition of a camera burrowing through topsoil for a macro-photographic tour of an ant colony, The Human Surge might easily be mistaken for a particularly interminable YouTube video, unfolding as it does like the aimless time-killing of bored boys without much to do and a crummy camera to record whatever ends up happening. Facetious as such a characterization may seem for a film with the temerity to divide its action across Argentina, Mozambique, and the Philippines, it’s not exactly unsuitable given director Eduardo Williams’s subject matter, which concerns the lives of minimum-wage slackers from the aforementioned locales who fill their downtime forging tenuous human connections across Internet platforms. Using a pair of nifty cuts to connect these disparate milieus, the film develops in chapters as if to imply a fundamental interconnectedness between people across the world in similar dead-end situations, yet often the only quality holding the episodes together is the amateurishness of the staging.
Life in the 21st century as a virtual playground with increasingly blurred geographical and social borders is a concept that’s governed more than a handful of overwrought, globetrotting network narratives, and Williams’s way of sidestepping cliché is by chucking plot and character out the window altogether. Filling the hole is a dribbly stream of go-nowhere exchanges between young (mostly male) people, each captured according to the one-shot-one-scene festival standard by a camera that registers every turbulent jolt of the operator’s body. When not hunkering down to observe these youths from the corners of darkened rooms, this nausea-inducing camera eye trails their movement through city streets from approximately a dozen yards away, a style that evokes less the austere mobility of Alan Clarke’s films than the voyeurism of paparazzi simply trying to keep up with their targets.
Williams’s handheld sloppiness is just one of his aberrant aesthetic indulgences. More perplexing are his choices of shooting format: shadow-intolerant Super 16mm to take in the dim interiors of Buenos Aires apartments, digital video reshot on celluloid from a computer monitor (producing a putrid greenish cast) for the Mozambique segment, and finally sharp HD to record the Filipino jungle. The evolution from under-exposed murk to plein air clarity must correlate to this strange-looking film’s migration from the urban to the rural, because it’s not as though there’s any other readily discernible progression across its runtime. Despite encompassing three spoken languages, the film neutralizes the speech cadences (pithy, mumbly) and conversation topics (nine-to-five drudgery, WiFi accessibility) across the three cultures it depicts, and Williams’s near-total denial of close-ups—or even, for that matter, of shots that render faces satisfyingly visible—blocks off the possibility for any emotional investment.
The Human Surge is arguably getting at something about the ephemeral and insubstantial nature of modern Internet culture, and the ways in which the seductions of this culture leech from gullible youngsters the precious pockets of free time dotting an existence subservient to the demands of late capitalism. (Insofar as connections are made between the disconnected characters, they’re strictly of the transactional, not meaningful variety, as in a vignette of Chatroulette-esque trolling.) But leaving aside the irony that this cynicism comes from a filmmaker who sourced his dramatic personae from social media, to graft this reading onto the film is merely to build a mountain from a molehill—or, rather, an ant farm from a couple chiaroscuro shots of ants. The film’s default state is an ambient inertia that gestures vaguely in multiple directions without concerning itself with the hard work of constructing an argument, a convincing milieu, or even a compelling mood.