With its crisp black-and-white photography and snazzy effects, Benjamin Dickinson's mesmerizing science fiction thriller "Creative Control" cleverly envisions a technology-dominated society that's right around the corner. But the particulars of the plot, in which the Brooklyn-based developer of new augmented reality glasses loses touch with the world around him, imbues the target of its critique with a sharp contemporary edge. It's at once otherworldly and familiar.
The actual product overseen by intense workaholic David (Dickinson), a pair of augmented reality glasses called Augmenta, contains features only a few degrees removed from the devices being imagined today (and already in limited circulation thanks to Google Glass). Dickinson populates the movie with a number of similar recognizable ingredients: In need of "a creative genius" to test out their product, David's company employs no less than real-life comedic audiovisual polymath Reggie Watts, whose role in the movie is one of several wry touches that root the story in modern times. David's boss is played by fast-talker Gavin McInnes, a co-founder of Vice magazine, which typifies the blend of brash attitude and measured intelligence at the root of the technology innovation scene.
But rather than settling for referential punchlines, "Creative Control" builds a dark, compelling plot of obsession and loneliness around the embellished present-day milieu.
It starts with a rush of activity: David converses with his colleagues about their product in a series of rapid-fire quips worthy of Aaron Sorkin, and it never slows from there. As the team explores their "boner for the new face computer" at a company meeting, David worries that the product "is not Main Street; it's Bedford Avenue," referencing the chic Williamsburg drag near their offices. It doesn't take long to get the sense that while Augmenta may be an imaginary product, its marketplace — in which driven code-savvy developers envisioning new methods of smuggling digital wizardry to the masses — continues to dominate the ecosystem of Silicon Valley and its New York counterparts today.
From the energetic opener, "Creative Control" roots its high-minded setting in a human element. Outside the workplace, David engages in regular skirmishes with his yoga-obsessed girlfriend (Nora Zehetner, Marc Maron's indignant ex on "Maron") while subsisting on a diet of pill-popping and cocaine binges to keep his professional drive intact. Frustrated that he can't find catharsis from his job in the bedroom, David develops a dangerous crush on Sophie (Alexia Rasmussen, the troubled protagonist of last year's sleeper hit "Proxy") — who just happens to be the girlfriend of his good friend Wim (Dan Gill). This dangerous crush eventually leads David to uses his Augmenta classes to develop his own private version of her to do his bidding.
But that twisted erotic development — which, on paper, echoes the premise of Spike Jonze's "Her," but takes on much eerier connotations — hardly dominates the bulk of the movie's running time. Instead, Dickinson's cooly intelligent screenplay (co-written by Micah Bloomberg) barrels through its near-future setting in bracingly detailed terms. Art directed to a fault, "Creative Control" is rich with subtle touches, from the ubiquitous clear plastic devices that suggest some upcoming smartphone generation to holographic video chats, all rendered with fully believable graphics that take on a kind of gothic elegance thanks to the movie's chiaroscuro palette. The visual conceit extends to its characters' faces, especially among the the men, who sport variations on stylish facial hair and hip glasses that suggest some nightmarish riff on a Ralph Lauren ad.
However, the narrative drive of "Creative Control" stems from the standard nature of David's problems — a pill-popping drinker prone to cocaine binges, he's regularly lost in a quest for fulfillment always just beyond his reach. The source of anxiety is palpable: In one brilliant sequence, Dickerson assumes the character's perspective as he's overwhelmed by a deluge of texts and emails swirling around an aimless video call as his eyes dart in every direction — the virtual detritus consuming his mind.
He's not alone. A complimentary storyline centers on David's girlfriend seeking a different form of escapism through the spiritual possibilities of yoga instruction, only to find that even that form of alternative consciousness endangers her mental stability. She finds a curious rival at her yoga studio from a bearded guru played by actual yoga instructor Paul Manza, whose penchant for seducing his students echoes a similar plot line from Dickerson's earlier feature "First Winter," which featured Manza in a nearly identical role.
Manza's appearance in "Creative Control" provides a key linking device to that previous efforts. In that movie, a group of cynical Brooklynites wind up stranded in the countryside when the apocalypse strikes the city, and grow to resent each other in the ensuing months of isolation. To some extent, "Creative Control" serves as the thematic prequel to "First Winter." While that movie envisioned the end of the world, the new one chronicles the self-destructive tendencies that could precipitate its arrival.
Yet compared to the meandering pace and minimalist setting of Dickinson's debut, "Creative Control" amounts to a major step forward. Aided by Adam Newport-Berra's gliding camerawork, the filmmaker navigates a lot of familiar terrain — open office spaces, grimy nightclubs, and Williamsburg's modish Wythe Hotel, but renders New York bohemia with shades of Kafkaesque uneasiness.
By the time the movie gets around to David's maniacal decision to invent a computerized lover, it emerges naturally from his state of frustration: the prevalent notion of seamless, invisible technology as a sexy conceit in literal terms. While not an entirely fresh idea — again, comparisons to "Her" are inescapable — "Creative Control" trades that movie's genial, romantic ingredients for more acerbic satire. David's mounting desperation reflects the uneasiness of coping with irrepressible change. No matter how much he's achieved, he copes with the pressure to push harder and risks driving himself insane in the process. ("You're a fucking genius," his superior tells him. "No," David sighs, "just younger than you.") Even his virtual affair requires him to plug away after hours.
At times, "Creative Control" feels just a touch overstylized for its own good, with a few too many slo-mo bits set to classical music to remind us of the refined environment at every turn. Even then, however, the overstatement plays into the movie's favor by elaborating on the illusion of perfection created by twenty-first century machines. Visually scrumptious and slickly told, "Creative Control" illustrates the power of groundbreaking technology while also indicting its extremes.
"Creative Control" premiered this week at the SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.