Film is a constantly developing medium, and while the vast majority of the improvements and advances are strictly on the storytelling side of the equation others are more focused on the technical front. Some films are interested in pushing the boundaries on both ends simultaneously.
The new Dutch film App is a straight-forward techno-thriller hoping to enhance the experience with a unique second-screen phone app experience. Moviegoers already pull out their phones far too frequently in theaters, so if you think this sounds like a nightmare scenario you’re not alone. For a film watched and enjoyed in the comfort of your own home though it’s a far more bearable experience… but is it a positive one?
Anna (Hannah Hoekstra) has her hands full with a boyfriend, classwork and a brother in the hospital, but her life grows even more out of control when a mysterious app appears on her phone. IRIS is helpful at first, but soon the malicious app is spying, sharing compromising photos and videos and manipulating the electronic world around Anna with deadly consequences.
“The more means of communication people have available to them the less they communicate.”
Anna’s attachment to her smartphone is clear from the beginning. It’s always on and instantly available, but it’s not until she wakes up the day after a big party that she discovers the app she didn’t know she needed. It’s been installed on her phone without her consent and immediately starts making her life easier. IRIS is a self-described personal assistant, capable of setting reminders, updating calendars and more, but “she” soon goes about controlling more questionable parts of Anna’s life too.
When compromising videos start spreading it’s discovered that Anna’s phone may be the source, but no one believes the phone is acting on its own and instead Anna finds herself ostracized for being so cruel. Attempts to uninstall the app are fruitless so she sets out to discover the who and the why behind it all.
Director Bobby Boermans and writer Robert Arthur Jansen keep things moving at a solid pace, and while techno-thrillers can easily get lost in shots of onscreen action it never feels like we’re drowning in a series of digital screens here. It probably helps that the screen we do see repeatedly is a cell and not a larger computer monitor, but there’s also the added benefit of the images being active and fluid as opposed to straight text.
The resulting story gets more than a little wonky as more is revealed, but it wisely keeps the scale small and manageable. There’s a healthy pool of supporting characters worth mistrusting as well, and when IRIS’ more murderous side comes out they turn into an equally good-sized pool of potential victims.
The story uses thriller trappings in service of a slight commentary on the ever-encroaching technological tide of devices and information. The more things we have doing things for us the less things we’re doing for ourselves or with other people. Human contact and the natural order of life are being more and more compromised, or enhanced, by technology. And maybe that’s not as good of a thing as we think.
While the plot and execution is okay without ever being exceptional the character of Anna elevates the film above its equally generic peers. She’s smart and capable both intellectually and physically, and it’s incredibly refreshing to see. Also impressive is the fact that the men in her life are never the determining factors or catalysts for action in the same way they often are in American films. Hoekstra makes Anna a convincing character in both her dramatic delivery and her physical prowess, and she manages a charisma on par with a Lisbeth Salander-type only without the accompanying body piercings, rage and sexual assault.
App doesn’t set a new standard for high tech thrillers, but its competent execution and fantastic lead make it highly watchable and enjoyable enough. High praise? No, but I “liked” it anyway.
Note: The downloadable app is meant as an enhancement meaning it’s not a requirement for those wanting only to enjoy and understand the film. In theory. Here’s how it works.
You download and install the free app on your iPhone or Droid, and you start it when instructed by the onscreen text. It’s that simple. As the movie progresses various messages, images and videos come through your phone (via the app) offering new perspectives on the film’s action. Some are as innocuous as a text about a guy’s butt — timed to right after the girls clearly eyeballed said behind — but we also get a second POV on the action at times. Anna leaves her professor’s office, the phone inside, and while the film follows her our phone shows us what’s happening back in the office.
The resulting video informs a minor subplot that leads to a dramatic scene, but it’s not necessary to follow the events. The same can’t be said for a handful of texts though that reveal the who and the what behind IRIS’ actions. The texts give app users a heads up well before the film itself makes the revelation, and that means there’s a real dramatic difference between the experiences in addition to the sensory one.
The Upside: Anna is an incredibly capable heroine; story is kept fairly simple and only slightly ridiculous
The Downside: Some highly questionable character actions; IRIS’ abilities seem exaggerated without explanation
On the Side: I used a friend’s phone to install and use the app. I’m no fool.