‘Users’ Review: Kronos Quartet Scores This Sundance U.S. Doc Directing Prize Winner, a Digital Age ‘Baraka’

Sundance: Natalia Almada's absorbing essay film muses on the dangers of technology as well as their ineffable wonder.

There are many stunning images flowing through “Users,” the dazzling and ruminative documentary essay from Mexican-American filmmaker Natalia Almada, but the one that resonates above them all is actually quite mundane: a grimy internet fiberoptic cable buried deep in the ocean that keeps the modern world connected. “Soon enough,” Almada intones in voiceover, “we will forget it’s even there.”

That underlying sense of awe and dread percolates through the duration of Almada’s audacious fourth feature. A far cry from the more conventional non-fiction portraits of Mexican life in “The Night Watchmen” and “The General,” Almada has crafted a hypnotic, visually-driven work in the tradition of “Baraka” and “Koyaanisqatsi” for the digital age, replete with an immersive score by Kronos Quartet and Dolby Atmos sound design.

Unlike those freewheeling, montage-based works, however, “Users” is fused together by Almada’s pensive, lyrical voiceover throughout, which injects personal stakes into a roving assemblage of cinematic landscapes that make your average Terrence Malick vision quest feel downright grounded. Much about “Users” unfolds as an abstract assemblage of technological materials and environmental wonder, but at its center is the filmmaker’s son.

Throughout the movie, the young child often gazes at the camera, lost in the screens thrust his way, as Almada wonders about the prospects of digital products supporting his life better than she ever can. Against that alluring and somewhat ominous concept, she juxtaposes stunning vistas and harrowing snippets of climate change, roaming through the free-associative symphony in search of answers.

“Users” doesn’t always find them, but it often alights on striking observations, moving between with them remarkable ease: She opens with the mesmerizing look at a child lulled to sleep in the hyper-efficient Sono crib, which works far better than a parent’s less-than-perfect grasp. From there, she travels high in the sky, to muse on the sort of impulses that led us to take the engineering genius of an aircraft for granted. That observation continues into various other passages, as Almada hovers in the euphoria of the world’s hidden efficiencies — a plugged-in global village blind to its progress.

As a pure compendium of visuals, “Users” never lacks for inspired moments, including the shot of digital compost careening out of a processor and blurring into a rainbow-colored mush. With cinematographer Bennet Cerf, Almada works wonders with the process of engineering new perspectives on everyday views: A single frame bathed in blue slowly reveals itself to hover miles above an angular slip of landing jutting out into the ocean. “My little world,” Almada says, “has been cut down to nothing.” Venturing into shadowy forest fires as smoke fills the screen, she extends that observation to humanity itself, a fragile presence on a world moving faster than the life that pushes it forward.

The personal and cosmic intermingling doesn’t always work in perfect harmony; the movie drifts along at an unhurried pace, sometimes to the detriment of its argument. “Users” lacks clarity, sliding along in moment-to-moment beauty with such confidence that it never seems too concerned with building a cohesive argument. But it’s never less than enthralling to get lost in this particular ether.

However, “Users” is without a doubt the kind of overwhelming sonic experience best-suited for a large screen and a top-notch sound system capable of doing justice to its ravishing design. The movie operates as a product of the same robust digital forces it interrogates. Almada burrows inside the menacing nature of modern times while acknowledging the fundamental beauty of cutting-edge progress. It doesn’t resolve the problems posed therein, but by making it possible to marvel at technological power, Almada at least seems to imply we’re all that in this together.

Grade: B+

“Users” premiered in the U.S. Documentary Competition. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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