Tuesday 26 August 2014

Channeling (2013)

Director: Drew Thomas
Stars: Skyler Day, Dominic DeVore, Kate French, Taylor Handley and Christian Camargo
This film was an official selection at the 9th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
I'm seeing a lot of movies lately made by people well known for a different role in the movie industry. The cost of entry is decreasing all the time, which means that editors, effects guys and scriptwriters can start to make the artistic statements that they want to make, all while keeping their day jobs and paying their bills. The man behind Channeling, an intriguing sci-fi action flick, is Drew Thomas, who started racking up credits as a cinematographer in 1997, moving up from short films through TV shows to features. Prior to this, his only credits as a producer or director were on Coachella, a feature length glimpse of that festival in 2006 and an episode of Walmart Soundcheck in 2009. By the way, whatever that suggests, it's really a live music show with interviews that is presumably sponsored by the store. If working for Walmart might mark the low point of Drew Thomas's career, this could easily be the equivalent high point because it's a heck of a lot more ambitious and his integrity remains intact. He wrote, produced and directed.

It opens very well indeed, with a commercial for EyeCast, a high definition camera that's embedded into a contact lens, surely the next step in the technology that's already brought us Google Glass, albeit after this fictional product. 'This is your life, live,' it says, 'because you only live once.' The technology is neat material for science fiction, of course, but science fiction isn't just about inventing technology, it's about putting it to use in a social context and building a story out of it. Fortunately that's precisely what we get here, beginning with Wyld, a young man who oxys up and races a Shelby GT through the countryside, a petrol pump hanging out of the side, broadcasting live all the way on his channel, Wyld Life, which has a lot of followers. When a trio of bikers chase after him with guns, also broadcasting through EyeCast, one of those followers pipes Wyld the feed and he takes one of them out by braking hard and letting the biker slam into the other camera on the back of his car. You only live once, indeed, and no, it's not abbreviated.

Switching to Yemen, Sgt Jonah Maddox of the US Army gets a call from the States. Wyld was his brother, Wyatt Maddox, who has died of trauma. Jonah travels home for his funeral and discovers that Ashleigh, their sister, broadcasts too, if only by looking in the mirror. She's raising to the world the envelope from the coroner that contains Wyatt's stuff and Jonah breaks it up. 'This isn't for them,' he tells her, but, after watching an old video recording of them as kids, he opens the envelope, discovers an EyeCast and pops it in. This automatically starts the Wyld Life channel and suddenly we have a movie. Wyld was someone to a lot of people, who are texting, commenting and now ringing. Suddenly Jonah realises that he has a lot more to do than go to his brother's funeral. He goes to EyeCast, masquerading as his brother, who of course was anonymous, unseen on footage broadcast from his POV. EyeCast want 'surprise, immediacy, chaos' because, as they pitch to sponsors, 'no-one Tivo'd 9/11'. And Wyld is all those things.
The potential is obvious here, but it could easily have been lost in the mix. Thomas keeps it focused in all the right directions, porn, first and foremost, as Ashleigh wakes up with Conner who's broadcasting her. I like the nod to the obvious, that EyeCast can be done in secret, which echoes the big privacy fear that's brought up every time Google Glass gets mentioned anywhere, but also that it can happen two ways at once, which I've not seen yet in the Google Glass stories. Maybe it's still too expensive. Blackmail comes up quickly too, with the inevitable money angle. Wyld races stolen cars to broadcast from and the screen he sees tracks the number of people watching. It's all about sponsorship, which manifests itself here first in a glorious interruption to the biker's feed during the chase for a diaper commercial. As always, timing is everything, right? And there's the darker side, which we soon discover as Jonah finds his way into the life his brother was leading, which merely starts with what he describes as 'a request line for felonies'.

Everything takes a back seat to the tech, at least initially. The actors play second fiddle to the contacts in their eyes for a while and the most obvious character is the one who's killed off at the beginning. Jonah is the bland brother when he enters the story, a poor comparison to the cool Wyatt. The story hints at quite a lot, but the tech drives it all. When Tara, Wyatt's partner and broadcast eye candy, explains to Jonah that he was murdered, the fact that he had thousands of viewers at the time but no witness is a delicious irony. Even the cinematography, Thomas's day job, is at its best with the tech at its heart, like that great moment when the biker hits Wyld's Shelby GT. We see the biker hit the car in the rear camera then pan round to watch him land in front of it. It's great enough that we see it twice and we aren't upset. Not all the tech is believable, Thomas definitely cutting corners for cinematic effect, but it's levels above the usual. When Gabriel hacks into a website, he tells Jonah and Tara to come back later. This isn't CSI.

I really appreciated the character of Gabriel. While Wyld and Tara are ramping up numbers to land higher quality sponsors, Gabriel isn't interested in that stuff. Cinematic shortcuts aside, he's the most refreshing screen hacker I've seen in a while. He's a merry prankster who pushes firebreathing dinosaurs and giant eyeballs through red light cameras, then hacks into them to grab the images. He's in it for the art not the money, blocking comments let alone sponsors. Much respect to Gabriel for not selling out and to Thomas for including such a character in his movie. I understand that he has to stay firmly in support, backing up the hot chick and the tough guy, but Thomas could have written him very differently and I'm thankful he didn't. Maybe it's enough to let me forgive him a little for those odd shortcuts and conveniences. Surely the one that rankles the most is that Wyld's continued anonymity relies on him never looking in a mirror, but he's seen most driving stolen cars that have three of them for him to look at frequently.
The acting gets better. Dominic DeVore isn't bad as Jonah and he certainly improves when the character pulls the stick out of his butt and lets him join the story properly. Taylor Handley shows more charisma as Wyatt, with his Leonardo DiCaprio vibe; unfortunately he's not in the picture long enough for us to find out if he can carry one. I liked Kate French a lot as Tara from moment one, because she's believably quick and tough on top of her good looks. Again, I'd like to have seen her do more than she's given the chance to, but her role is what it needs to be. It's Skyler Day who's the best of the main cast, surprisingly given that she's annoyingly weak at the beginning of the film. Ashleigh's subplot takes quite a while to kick into motion but, in many ways, it's much truer than the main one. It doesn't merely take a dive into what the technology does, it's an exploration of what the technology means to real people, both the positive and the negative. The film finds its emotional peak when it all goes down for her, not for Jonah and Tara.

The biggest problem Channeling has is that it's biased too much towards the more commercial angle, to the detriment of the more substantial one. I feel odd bringing this up, because I'm a genre guy and I'm all for the sort of places that the main plot takes us, the snuff, sex tape and gambling angles, not to mention all the driving action. These play out well with a neatly sinister edge to the twists, but they don't hold any surprises because there aren't enough characters and possibilities for that. Ashleigh's angle is one that I wouldn't normally be interested in at all. She's a young lady suffering inside from the constant belittling of her father, parental abuse over decades that leads her to find an outlet for her anguish. It could all be fodder for a soporific tween drama, especially given the roads it sets her on towards the sort of celebrity reality coverage that makes my brain shut down, but it's really the heart of the technology Thomas turns into fiction in Channeling. EyeCast is democratised empowerment with a transparent middleman.

With only a hundred minutes to play with, there's much that's missed out. This is Twitter meets YouTube meets liveblogging meets GoPro, of course, but it delves deep enough to capture trolls on a girl's fashion channel. Yet it misses the legal angle which ought to be massive. How would criminals act if they couldn't be sure if their victims were channeling or not? Surely the NSA is monitoring these feeds. Why wouldn't a serial carjacker like Wyatt not be tracked down through his widely advertised channel? Like cops couldn't monitor that and figure out where he is? Regular people would be capturing streams, whether to relive or remix. Sure, you're only live once, but that doesn't mean captured streams aren't admissable in court as evidence. The insurance industry is why there are so many dashcams in Russia. There's a lot more depth to this technology than targetted popups and sponsored ads. I salute Thomas for getting as much of it into his movie as he did, but he inevitably missed a whole heck of a lot.

And this leads to the inevitable talk of a sequel. Channeling was well received, enough to win as the best sci-fi feature at the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in 2013, among other awards. It holds a very strong rating at IMDb, though it's in dire need of more votes. I hope it's doing well enough commercially for a new feature to be a firm possibility in Thomas's mind once he's done promoting this one. While the suggestion of a sequel is rarely a good one, it seems appropriate here. He wouldn't need to bring any of the cast back, though he easily could, of course. He could fashion an entirely new story around the same technology and explore a host of other angles that he didn't have space for in this film. Maybe the whole surveillance angle would be most timely, after Edward Snowden's revelations utterly changed the tone of everything in the cloud. He could extrapolate the technology much further than video feeds, comments and a little interactivity. This is a strong film but it deserves to become stronger in a wider context.

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