Billed as taking place “five minutes” in the future, writer-director Benjamin Dickinson’s dry comedy “Creative Control” isn’t the first to use a science fiction setting to satirize current culture. More serious works like “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and much of Philip K. Dick’s bibliography have commented on their creators’ current experience through the lens of an imagined world. “Creative Control” takes a similar approach, though the distance between the present and future is far smaller than many of its predecessors, and it relies far more on the comedy inherent in its near-future situations.
With its focus on augmented reality and its immersive capabilities, Dickinson’s film is fully aware of its audience. It premiered at tech-centric SXSW in 2015 and offered content exclusives to Mashable and The Verge, rather than the more traditional entertainment sites. It’s meant to appeal to techies, though it posits that our connection to technology and our devices is actually disconnecting us from each other and the larger world. “Creative Control” never dives too deeply into, or gets bogged down by the mechanics of what we’re seeing on screen. This is more about soft sci-fi ideas than about hard sci-fi execution, but its thoughts on where technology will take us in the future feel very real and very likely. This is “Black Mirror” through the Brooklyn hipster lens.
That all sounds terribly serious, but Dickinson explores these ideas with visual verve and wit. For the first third of the film, the approach of “Creative Control” is wry observation, full of irony about tech, Brooklyn, and sleazy photographers who shout “More sex!” at their models. But then it flips a switch — or more likely uses gesture controls — and the film gets funnier, going beyond gags that simply muster rolled eyes, offering laugh-out-loud lines.
We’re introduced to the protagonist with a few small but largely indicative details: David (director Dickinson) takes a pill on his way into the office and gets the receptionist’s name wrong. Both of these prove not to be one-time incidents. “You’re a fucking genius,” a coworker tells David when he works technical magic in a conference room while they wait for a potential client to arrive. “No, I’m just younger than you,” David replies. He aces the pitch for the client, who are trying to market their augmented reality glasses Augmenta, by focusing on the device’s creative capabilities rather than its practical ones. He enlists musician/artist/comedian Reggie Watts (playing a version of himself) to create a piece using the glasses, and Augmenta is sold on the concept.
David’s work life bleeds into his personal one when he takes the augmented reality glasses home for a test drive. He runs into a friend’s girlfriend, Sophie (Alexia Rasmussen), on the street and immediately scans her body for future use. He has grown bored with his own partner, Juliette (Nora Zehetner), a yoga teacher whom the audience quickly tires of as well. He begins wearing the glasses more and using their features to bring a virtual Sophie into a more intimate relationship than they currently share. But soon, David’s real world and the one he’s created begin to bleed into one another, making him question what is real.
“Creative Control” has a gorgeous futuristic texture, largely through its near lack of actual texture. Everything is cold, glossy, and sleek, from the transparent screens and devices to the decor in David’s office and his apartment. Paul Hsu’s sound design, particularly the work heard from inside the perspective of the augmented reality glasses, contributes to immersing the audience in the world the team has built.
The cinematography from Adam Newport-Berra (“All the Wilderness”) is almost exclusively in crisp black-and-white, with a few strategic uses of color. “Creative Control” is another point in the ongoing argument for the benefits of digital. This is a low-budget film, but it looks pristine and far more expensive than it actually is. Newport-Berra uses black and white artfully, capturing the fine detail of ash falling off a cigarette and the accompanying smoke, sometimes slowing down the video speed for effect.
Writer-director Dickinson is stronger at those hyphenates than he is at playing the lead here, but his David is never bad enough to be truly distracting. Though there are a few bland lines, there’s some strong, pointed dialogue, as well as a few nice, small touches in the script. Of course, the agency David works for is named Homunculus, as only a faux highbrow marketing agency could be, and a beaded Brooklyn yogi’s given name surprisingly isn’t Govindas.
Dickinson cast VICE co-founder Gavin McInnes as his boss, but it’s more interesting than it is effective. He’s a better presence than an actor, though the audience members who know who he is will enjoy the wink in their direction. Watts is enjoyably loopy as himself, with his final scene in the movie as a highlight. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Zehetner’s Juliette is a drag on the film in each scene she’s in, a black hole of energy and charisma. I appreciate that her character is given a life beyond her connection to her boyfriend, David, but she has less substance than her augmented reality competition.
“Creative Control” asks questions about the lines between art, sex, business, and technology, blurring the breaks between each and wondering where authenticity and reality come into the mix. Dickinson’s characters are very much new Brooklyn artists, rather than the so-called starving ones of yesteryear. They’re applying their talents to marketing and commercial photography, allowing them to live in the newly less-gritty borough. “Creative Control” has a lot to say, and style to spare, but stronger performances and better-drawn characters could have made its message even more effective and enjoyable. [B]