Overview: Two grad-students develop the technology for telepathy but when the government becomes involved they find their lives, morals, and the future of the free-world at stake. Amplify; 2014; NR; 100 minutes.
Between Thinking and Doing: Writer/Director Khalil Sullins’ Listening takes a hands on approach to science fiction, both in terms of the scale of the filmmaking, and the central characters’ ability to create the future within their garage. The film contains many of the grounded elements that made Primer such a talking point amongst indie film fans and sci-fi enthusiasts. But unlike that film, Listening finds a way to bridge the gap between cerebral intent and gripping entertainment. There’s a sense of urgency to Listening, one that keeps the personal stakes at the forefront of the film’s plot and keeps the story constantly moving forward.
The first half of the film is dedicated to exploring David (Thomas Stroppel) and Ryan’s (Artie Ahr) friendship, David’s marriage to Melanie (Christina Haeberman) and his role as a father, and Ryan’s budding relationship with Jordan (Amber Marie Bollinger), before even touching on how the technology they’ve developed will potentially change the world. With the added advantage of an entirely solid cast, the time that’s spent on these relationships help ground the film. The end result displays just as much interest in its characters and their emotions as it does in its themes and scientific rationale. While grounded, low-budget science fiction films can sometimes feel cold and clinical in their efforts not to stray too far into the fantastic, Sullins’ film emanates warmth. It’s clear from Blake McClure’s cinematography, which makes careful use of color saturation based on the characters’ sensations and situation, Listening is deeply in tune with the human experience.
Batman vs. Superman: Thomas Stroppel and Artie Ahr’s respective performances as David and Ryan deliver the kind of charm, sincerity, and determination that make for compelling comedy and drama. A discussion early in the film about whether Batman or Superman would win in a fight comes to define each character as the film progresses. But David and Ryan offer more than what they describe as brawn versus brains. Both characters have compelling reasons to create telepathic technology, and ironically (or perhaps not so much) both have communication problems. Despite their years of friendship, neither man knows the other at his core. And so David’s patience, emotional detachment, and unwillingness to compromise make him the perfect foil for Ryan’s hot-blooded, act-first nature. The script successfully navigates both characters into the space between hero and villain, where David and Ryan are morally compromised but right in their own way. When the two eventually do come to blows, both physically and emotionally over what they’ve created, the film successfully balances morality play with techno-thriller. While there are a few odd lapses in time within the film that threaten this balance in order for the major character changes to be explained, the climax is no less earned, and it’s one of the year’s most compelling showdowns.
Get Out of My Head: At its best science-fiction offers a look at humanity right now– humanity today with access to technology years away. The technology that Sullins explores in the film is very much relevant to right now, and to the topics of national security, privacy, and free-will. While none of these elements are novel in film or science fiction, Listening’s concern that there’s no limit to what people would do or think given a link to someone else’s brain is no less enticing. While the U.S. government does play the role of the big bad in the film, Listening also places the future of our world in the hands of ordinary citizens (as exemplified by David and Ryan). Like Orwell’s 1984, Listening questions humanity’s willingness to be controlled and the moral implications of that. While the film does take a stance, it doesn’t offer any easy solutions to the problem which leaves audiences with something to consider long after the credits have rolled.
Overall: Khalil Sullins has made a remarkable directorial debut, offering the kind of craftsmanship, attention to characters, and intelligent accessibility that few directors can manage on arrival. It’s almost impossible not to feel aware of the larger cinematic ideas this film could lead to, and if Sullins is given access to a bigger budget…well, watch out. There’s a strong chance Listening is one of those fundamental first films that will eventually stand alongside Christopher Nolan’s Following and Darren Aronofsky’s Pi, the kind of film we’ll look back on years from now and say this is where the link that sparked greatness was first established.
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