Review by Andrew Wertz
Listening, an indie sci-fi thriller in the vein of this year’s excellent Ex Machina and other minimal futurist films like Primer, attempts to show the perils of surveillance. Listening follows three graduate students as they create a device that can read, analyze, and eventually control the human brain. Despite an interesting premise, Listening is a total misfire, with very poor acting, writing, and cinematography.
The story starts with David and Ryan. Both are incredibly smart, yet poor, graduate students at CalTech. They steal equipment from the university in order to work on their groundbreaking experiment- a machine that can read thoughts. Through disorienting cutscenes, we come to understand that the government is working on a similar experiment, although they are focused on surveillance and ultimately imbedding thoughts in citizens. Throughout the film, the two experiments eventually intermingle in predictable ways as the plot thickens.
The story’s biggest issue that it fails to bring the audience into its world. A science fiction premise needs introduce the rules of the new technology. Listening attempts to introduce the rules through paragraphs of technobabble, but ultimately, the film’s universe does not even abide by its own rules. The ending makes little sense in the story world, as it deploys a function of the technology that is never explained and has no reason to exist. The film’s universe is full of logical flaws. For instance, the government places all employees under surveillance, yet does not monitor their computers. What could go wrong?
Neither David and Ryan are likable or even interesting characters. David is married, yet neglects his wife and child for generic work related reasons. Ryan is a womanizer, who early in the film picks up Jordan. Despite only showing her the experiment because she has a nice butt, Jordan quickly steps in and proves that she is smarter than Ryan and David and instantly improves their experiment. Jordan’s random introduction for the group has incredibly lucky (or unlucky) consequences to the duo.
All of the characters are thin and undeveloped, and often act for no reason. The film fails to really show the motivations for the characters’ actions, adding to its disorganized and thin story. The characters pick fights with one another, make up, then fight again for the duration of the film, without changing or growing at all. When the characters do change, like Ryan abandoning his womanizing ways, it seems totally arbitrary. The acting is poor across the board, which further detracts from the believability of the characters.
For a science fiction film, Listening is an outlier since it relies almost entirely on dialogue, with very few effects. The dialogue is often clunky and very expository, and most of the technical talk sounds like gibberish. It is impossible to follow and adds nothing to plot except a vague feeling of scientific accuracy.
The cinematography of Listening is distractingly bad most of the film. Nearly every shot has a yellow, green, or blue tint added to it. However, unlike the green tint of The Matrix or the multi colored tints of Traffic, the colors in Listening are random and mean nothing and are totally arbitrary. This adds to the cheap look and feel of the film. At one point, a group of “listeners” sit in an entirely red room. Unlike the other tints, the red room is literally a red room within the world of the film, a silly detail that breaks down the world of the film even more.