It’s almost cliché to say that our lives are becoming more and more dependent on technology, but the truth of that statement can’t be ignored. Although our near constant plugged-in state is, to most of us, second nature, the implications of a life lived behind a screen are always worth a second look. In the new film Creative Control, director, co-writer, and star Ben Dickinson takes the relationship we’ve fostered with our tech to a dark, funny, discomforting place, and once there, asks if we’re really able to deal with the reality we’re slowly working towards.
David (Ben Dickinson) is an ambitious young gun at an ad agency, working on the account of a new augmented reality device called Augmenta. He lives with his girlfriend, Juliette (Nora Zehetner), but he has a crush on Sophie (Alexia Rasmussen), his best friend Wim’s (Dan Gill) girlfriend. David decides to use his own pair of Augmenta glasses to fantasize about sex with Sophie. Meanwhile, his world disintegrates to varying degrees around him. It’s a reliably complicated and dependably tense set up, but it’s really the augmented reality that makes this movie more than just another sad tale of a white dude who messes up his perfectly unfulfilling, comfortable life.
The film is reminiscent of disparate genres and styles. There’s a mumble core off-the-cuff ethos to the dialogue, but every so often the deadpan calls to mind Wes Anderson. This is particularly true when the classical music starts and the action switches to slow motion. The cinematography is interesting throughout, and at times it’s beautiful, such as when David walks out of perfectly centered hotel room doors to watch faux-Sophie walk up a spiral staircase. The composition of the shot, just-shy-of-epic music and artful slow-motion all work together to create a scene that’s remarkably striking.
But it does give into an indulgence of the times: The characters are, without exception, insufferable. David, Juliette, Wim, and the myriad coworkers, partiers and models they interact with take themselves so painfully seriously that the viewer can’t. Theirs are the problems of the young, creative and affluent, which is to say problems engendered by having the means and access to everything they could want and nothing that seems to make them happy. Sophie is largely on the periphery, kept at arm’s length to allow David’s fantasies to bleed into her actual character, but even so she grates. Perhaps even more awful, their frenetic sense of constant connection and stress likely ring at least somewhat true to many of the same generation.
If it all feels a bit fraught –– my God, Juliette, how could you complain about a weekend in upstate New York teaching yoga? –– the strength of the plot’s basic components makes it fascinating and redeems what could easily be a weak amalgamation of stereotypical important millennial films. There’s a Black Mirror esque aspect to the technology of the film, which seems to take place in a familiar future. Computers and phones are transparent sheets of glass that react to brain signals and hand gestures. It’s a few steps further than we are now, but not completely unbelievable, which in turn makes the idea of reality augmenting hipster glasses not entirely alien. With the rest of the film grounded in a very zeitgeisty Manhattan (the oysters, the moustaches, the minimalist design), it’s the kind of theoretical that feels possible rather than rooted in sci-fi.
In fact, throughout the film it’s easy to see shadows of our relationship with social media today. Few can admit to never having projected or imagined interactions with people we see only through technology. We’ve welcomed voyeurism into our lives and allowed our image to be left at the mercy of those on the other side of a screen. So where is the line between moral and immoral use of that image in a private setting? When does the privacy of the individual supersede the imagination of the person doing the seeing?
It’s uncomfortable to watch David have sex with an augmented vision of Sophie, and the film makes clear that there are real life consequences for his doing so. David allows his version of Sophie to bleed into real life, complicating his relationships and making him draw deeper into his imagined affair with her. He is eventually unable to tell the difference between the digital and the real.
But there seems to be a much larger question at the heart of the film: Are the digital and the real truly two different worlds? And what’s more, can the digital be said to be unreal when the implications it has are fully tangible? In one scene, David is sitting at table with nothing in front of him. Quickly, he ends up on a call while tweaking his augmented Sophie, texting with at least three people, and working on a project for work. The tension is palpable as more and more screens demand his attention, a single bead of sweat rolling from his temple. When he clears them all away, he’s once again alone at the table, but the stress of constant connection lingers.
The film doesn’t make zombies of everyone. Reggie Watts checks out fully, asking his dinner guests to turn in their phones before eating and leaving the grid completely near the end of the film. There’s a balance, in other words, that can maximize the potential of technology while allowing a person to maintain an identity outside of the cloud. It doesn’t suggest how or pretend to have the answers to the questions we all ask on a regular basis, like how we can actually make ourselves get off our smartphones an hour before bed. Instead, in the midst of well-manicured facial hair and belabored conversations about third world labor, it presents a vision of the very near future when we all might be forced to fully reckon with our relationship with our digital selves.
WORDS BY: BRIDEY HEING
Bridey is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. More of her work can be found here.