The role of a second screen in the viewing process media emerged organically as home viewers naturally turned to their personal devices while watching television, so it was only a matter of time before the people behind that entertainment took advantage of it. Second screen experiences pegged to television have been growing more sophisticated in recent years, but the Dutch genre movie “APP” — which opened in its native country last year, but makes its way to U.S. theaters and VOD next Friday—marks the first occasion of a feature-length film designed to incorporate a second screen, which automatically makes it a technological curiosity. While not fully realizing its potential, however, this rare occasion in which audiences are encouraged to use their devices during the movie is a surprisingly decent stab at something new.
Still, the gimmick behind “APP,” directed by Bobby Boermans from Robert Arthur Jansen’s script, involves a relatively simple level of engagement: By downloading “Iris-App the movie” from the app store (iPhone or Android devices only) or texting “IRIS” TO 97-000, one can access a piece of software that syncs with the audio of the movie and displays additional material designed to enhance the story. It’s important to note that the app for “APP” has been engineered as a supplementary ingredient, not an essential one, intended to punctuate certain moments rather than adding a wealth of new information. While it invites an engaged viewership, it’s not required, an outcome bound to please the community of academic theorists and forward-thinking creatives who have been tossing around the possibilities of transmedia storytelling for over a decade.
As the transmedia scholar Henry Jenkins writes in his seminal text “Convergence Culture,” when a story unfolds across multiple strands of media — the fundamental definition of transmedia storytelling— each strand must work on its own. Though the second screen is subservient to events transpiring in “APP” in real time, the movie itself is a well-made but rather uninspired narrative.
But that’s exactly why “APP” mandates its smartphone add-on. Without it, the movie is a polished but fairly hokey B-movie that arbitrarily veers from the makings of a tech thriller to a ghost story. At its center, Hannah Hoekstra plays psychology college student Anna, who winds up with a nefarious app on her phone called Iris that attempts to control her life. As Anna gradually uncovers a conspiracy that involves the health of her wheelchair-bound brother and the fate of her best friend Sophie (Isis Cabolet), “APP” finds the likable young woman transforming into a fierce heroine whose anger and fear take on credible dimensions thanks to Hoekstra’s strong performance. Even so, the cryptic blend of science fiction and supernatural elements have a noticeably bland quality rendered more intriguing by virtue of the phone connected to them.
The app, called “Iris” like the evil artificial intelligence in the movie, offers no interactive components. However, it’s not exclusively time-based. Users launching it in advance of the movie are greeted with a launch page and a start button, which you’re encouraged to press as the movie begins. But unlike the famously trippy “Dark Side of the Rainbow” experience—the syncing of “Wizard of Oz” to Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon,” which has provided the centerpiece for countless stoned dorm room soirees—the app actively engages with “APP” by synching with its audio. Similar to the way the “Shazam” app recognizes songs by processing audio files in real time, Iris anticipates certain moments in the movie’s plot and displays additional footage that fleshes out some of the details.
Iris hints at these possibilities early on: Following a prologue in which a woman gets hit by a train, the phone presents news headlines about her sudden death while the credits roll. But rather than overloading audiences with similar details, Iris stays mostly silent for the first 20 minutes or so—until Anna goes to a party, runs into an ex-boyfriend from high school, passes out drunk and wakes up the next morning to find her ominous, Siri-like companion mysteriously installed on her phone. From there, the mechanical being gradually takes over Anna’s life, at first in a good way by helping her during class, but it doesn’t take long for its darker tendencies to take shape: In due time, Iris is predicting morbid future events, broadcasting private sex videos on a classroom screen, and revealing Anna’s naked body on the monitors of a department store to deter her from any attempt to get rid of it. Then…the killings begin.
Over a decade since Takashi Miike’s “One Missed Call,” the idea of a cell phone horror movie has grown somewhat stale, but “App” has enough special features to mildly rejuvenate the formula. As Anna grows steadily invested in the nature of her conundrum, unraveling a labyrinthine scheme oddly linked to an experimental device designed to help her brother walk, the phone shifts from an electric-blue placeholder to additional perspectives, sometimes offering glimpses of private chats between friends and colleagues.
But its most cinematic ingredient involves the use of alternate angles: At one point, while Anna gazes at her phone in bed, we see her own pixelated face gazing back at us through the device; elsewhere, scenes that start in one screen continue briefly in the other, cleverly suggesting the movie’s world traveling across devices. On a few occasions, the effect takes on the passing quality of Brian De Palma’s once-venerated split screen approach, forcing viewers to witness multiple events at once—for example, cluing us into a conversation between two feuding villains while Anna evades their advances, or hinting at an event that’s about occur. Overall, Iris’ role in “APP” is a sputtering one, resulting in the sense of a rough idea that never fully comes to fruition. But it’s innovative enough to get the ball rolling on a new approach.
Whenever the second screen is on the verge of presenting new information, the phone buzzes, which simultaneously takes you out of the story and reminds you to actively consider its multiple dimensions. As a stunt, the visceral nudge has a significant precedent, taking the form of a 21st century version of a William Castle project. In the fifties and sixties, Castle’s silly genre experiments hit theaters equipped with primordial second screen elements of their own—most notably with “The Tingler,” in which the showman stuck buzzers underneath theater patrons’ chairs to stimulate the titular creature’s assault from below. Each time your phone vibrates during “APP,” the lingering spirit of Castle’s playful ingenuity grows stronger.
By itself, “App” fizzles in its closing moments, in which a rushed explanation and clichéd rooftop showdown bring the conflict to a tidy finale. But unlike “App,” Hollywood rarely attempts to surround these events with any semblance of originality. While contemporary blockbusters repeat the same motifs again and again, “App” provides some modicum of a solution with a personal cinematic experience that’s nevertheless linked to intelligent design. It’s a minor but nonetheless progressive step forward, and if nothing else, should provide sufficient fuel for even stronger iterations. As the world’s population continues to rely on its devices, they may as well tell us stories. “Watch Out, You’re Next!” declares Iris on the phone screen as the credits roll. One can only hope.