Ever get the feeling that something truly sinister is simmering quietly beneath our brave new world of digital technology? The dark sci-fi drama Creative Control thinks so, too.
Director Benjamin Dickinson's squirmy black-and-white indie is a cautionary tale set five minutes in the future, concerning a virtual reality technology called Augmenta. Dickinson plays David, a creative director at a marketing agency tasked with selling the new device, which falls somewhere along the future trajectory of Google Glass or the Oculus Rift. The headset looks like an ordinary pair of eyeglasses, but has powerful features for recording and augmenting reality.
David is under tremendous pressure at work, which he tamps down with booze, prescription meds, and whatever drugs he can find at the Brooklyn parties he attends. His girlfriend, yoga teacher Juliette (Nora Zehetner), is spooked by his intake of substances, as well as his apparent attraction to mutual friend Sophie (Alexia Rasmussen).
David's downward spiral accelerates when he incorporates Augmenta into his cocktail of addictions. By manipulating the device's imaging capabilities, he creates a virtual avatar of Sophie that is pliant and programmable. It's not really her, of course, and it's not really sex. But David is quickly losing the ability to make those distinctions.
As David's physical and virtual lives blur and splinter, the marketing effort for Augmenta proceeds apace. Hipster icon Reggie Watts, playing himself, comes on board as an artistic consultant for the campaign. The filmmakers are clearly having some fun noodling with the story's meta themes. Watts's scenes as a digital shaman are very funny, and the Augmenta commercial he finally delivers is the film's darkest bit of near-future satire.
Everything else plays out like a low-budget Bret Easton Ellis adaptation crosscut with an episode of Black Mirror, the edgy British TV anthology of digital-age anxieties. The black-and-white widescreen cinematography is stylish, and the special effects are superb. But the story and characterizations are flimsy, as is the self-conscious lead performance by Dickinson, who probably should have stayed behind the camera. If the vision is darker than that of other recent films covering similar territory—Ex Machina, Her—it's also less accomplished.
In its most compelling passages, Creative Control evokes a real sense of dread, familiar to anyone who's been paying attention to consumer technology in recent years. Why is it that our coveted devices, designed to communicate and connect, seem to be pulling us apart? What if virtual reality turns out to be the greatest trick the devil ever pulled? The film's through-line is too rickety to deliver any answers, but it is asking the right questions.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Surreal Estate."