Over the past 10 years technologies like smartphones and VR have marched steadily from the pages of speculative fiction and into reality, and given how ubiquitous these technologies have become it’s not surprising to see fears related to their rise pop up in movies and television. Cultural relevance isn’t the same thing as resonance, however, and movies like Transcendence and Sex Tape have failed to leave much of a mark because, well, they just haven’t been that good. The upcoming film Creative Control takes a big step towards correcting that.
A near-future satire about the dangers of social disconnection in the age of augmented reality, Control pairs restrained, beautiful filmmaking with some wonderfully executed visual effects to tell a story that isn’t as interested in technology running amok as it is in human beings running amok with technology. While it may not be entirely successful, it’s a film filled with clever insights, driven by the kind of sharp filmmaking voice that can push the genre forward.
Writer, director (and lead actor) Benjamin Dickinson plays David, an up-and-coming advertising executive in New York. David’s high-strung and anxious about his career, and has been feeling increasingly restless about his relationship with his yoga instructor girlfriend (Brick’s Nora Zehetner). When David lands the campaign for a pair of new augmented reality glasses called Augmenta, he throws himself completely into his work, and soon discovers that the Augmenta system can do a pretty good job building a virtual version of his best friend’s girlfriend, Sophie (Alexia Rasmussen, somehow walking a line between idealized fantasy dream girl and living, breathing human being). As the campaign runs into problems and David’s relationship crumbles, he begins having an affair with the virtual Sophie as the lines between reality and digital fantasy becoming increasingly blurred.
Dickinson makes it clear from the start that Creative Control is a very different kind of movie than we’ve seen tackle these topics before. His film is shot in gorgeous, widescreen black and white, and he gives his characters time to hang out, talk, argue, and pick apart their daily lives. In the press notes for the film, Dickinson compares it to the work of Antonioni, and while that may be a bit generous the film nevertheless does an excellent job of painting a portrait of people who are inextricably linked yet never seem to connect with one another at all. David parties with his (adulterous) best friend while coveting Sophie, he shoves his own girlfriend away when she finds herself in the midst of an existential crisis, and while he puts his job above everything else, he truly doesn’t know anything about his colleagues or his boss, played by Vice co-founder Gavin McInnes.
Screens are everywhere — table stakes for a movie about how technology is invading our lives — but it’s the movie’s portrayal of the Augmenta system that seems so shockingly, wondrously believable. Augmenta looks like nothing more than a pair of Warby Parker glasses, but when David slips it on he’s treated to an immersive interface and display that’s not far off from the flat UI aesthetics that have taken over in the past few years. It’s also impossible to watch and not be reminded of something like Google Glass (and what an abject failure it was), because the system in Creative Control is actually useful. It’s an always-on, always watching, semi-sentient companion, able to log the reactions of Sophie’s face when David talks to her, process them, and use the data to generate a realistic automaton all on its own. It’s the kind of only-in-the-movies technology that you immediately point to and say, That's incredible! — but what’s really shocking here is that it’s probably not that far off into our own future at all.
a mild send-up of tech and media culture
Dickinson ultimately comes off as a better writer and director than actor. David is written as a bit of a hipster schmuck — the entire film is a mild send-up of Brooklyn tech and media culture — but Dickinson the performer doesn’t really add anything to make David somebody you’d necessarily want to hang out with for two hours, particularly as he starts losing his grip on what’s real and what’s Augmenta. There’s also a subplot with Reggie Watts that feels utterly forced: Watts plays himself, and David and his team hire the musician/comedian to create promotional materials for the Augmenta system. The result is a blend of New Age intellectualism and visual stunts, but it’s not clear if the film is celebrating the message or laughing at it.
That same issue snakes throughout the film, and it often appears Dickinson is mythologizing the same creative class subculture he thinks he’s satirizing. But these are questions of nuance, and ones that other films don’t even provoke in the first place. It’s ultimately a fascinating and engaging film from a director who’s only made two features at this point, and while watching Creative Control I couldn’t help but think back to the first time I saw Shane Carruth’s Primer or Duncan Jones’ Moon. Both were films from untested talents that used sci-fi and speculative fiction to tell idiosyncratic stories of a truly personal nature, and both filmmakers instantly made themselves artists to follow from that moment forward. This time around, I’ll be watching Ben Dickinson.Creative Control opens in New York, Los Angeles, and Austin on March 11th, and will expand nationwide before arriving on Amazon Prime Video.