This deceptively low-key science fiction film from writer-director Kurtis David Harder is essentially a millennials’ take on Michael Reeves’ The Sorcerers. In the 1968 film, old mad scientists Boris Karloff and Catherine Lacey use a gadget to semi-possess swinging young Ian Ogilvy and kindle appetites for sex and violence. Here, the experimenters who use a machine to piggyback in the minds of high-living young folks are roughly the same age as their unwilling test subjects, which leaves generational envy out of the equation to allow for focus on other aspects of stealing experience or transgressing without apparent consequence.
Student Samantha (Anja Savcic) jogs, copes with a dependent alcoholic mother (Barb Mitchell), works all hours in a coffee shop (the owner is played by Brittany Allen, of It Stains the Sands Red) and tries to shine in class – but is plainly stretched thin. Mark (Levi Meaden), a classmate she has sort of a crush on, invites her to join an extracurricular circle with Jenny (Shayla Stonechild), who has a surprisingly expensive apartment, and Victor (Rory J. Saper), a spiky British drop-out who has stolen a black box from the university which enables users to plug in to random minds in the immediate vicinity. The effect is sometimes close to total possession, with the quartet taking over the bodies of partying rich kids, but the users find they can also nudge their hosts rather than direct them – easing them along paths they might have chosen on their own. All four get hung up on the box in different ways, with Samantha covertly taking over Marissa (Sarah Troyer), Mark’s above-his-station girlfriend. Given that the whole process is unethical and invasive, there’s still a steady slope from indulging in drink, drugs and casual sex (or, for allergic Samantha, peanut brittle) to committing pointless robberies or experiencing death second-hand.
Samantha, the viewpoint character, comes into the story late and has to catch up, which means that she doesn’t quite clock how far along the road to corruption her friends are. She recognises Victor as ‘dangerous’, but willfully ignores details like Jenny’s posh flat and Mark’s out-of-his-league (and rigorously kept out of this circle) girlfriend that tell us the machine has been used to take short cuts. Samantha mind-hacks her boss to get a holiday and a raise and her mother to shape up and start job-searching, but is soon following the others in stealing from her subjects during jaunts – having them stash envelopes of cash in her locker for later retrieval. The big questions of where the machine comes from and why no one has come after Victor for stealing it are also unexamined, which prompts a realisation that the experimenters may themselves be subject to external influences. It has an oblique, creepy last act which opens up more possibilities …
With a chilly, Canadian look (and cerebral approach) that inevitably evokes early David Cronenberg, this downplays the gadgetry – the black box is almost an archetypal mcguffin rather than an elaborate prop – and uses its device as an analogue to all sorts of addictive, intrusive technologies. Harder confidently pulls off a sustained sleight of hand in having the main characters always identifiable even though the lead actors are quite often left slumped around the box while supporting players have to carry the story as random folks who’ve been hijacked and manipulated. It’s a subtle, thoughtful film, deceptively soft-spoken but ultimately chilling.