The internet is of one of the greatest inventions in the long, storied history of human creations. It has shrunk down the known universe into a box the size of a small dog. The near-sum total of human knowledge is accessible through a little pile of microchips and glass we can carry around in our pockets. Practically anything you can conjure up in your mind’s eye is available if you know where to look for it. Anything worth accessing can be accessed. When this new technology started entering our homes and libraries around the turn of the millennium, it generated awe. It was literally awesome, an untamed and unknowable force to be reckoned with. As a child, once I figured out that the internet wasn’t all hockey and Pokémon, my greatest fear — a fear I still have at the very back of my head — was to land on something that no eyes should ever see. Pages upon pages of the very worst our species is capable of, from abuse and assault to shock sites and God knows what else. You may very well have your own version of online hell. On some days, existing on the internet can be like playing a particularly nasty game of emotional whack-a-mole.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s 2001 film Pulse is remarkable if only for one thing: despite being firmly placed in the pre-broadband internet Middle Ages (cathode ray monitors, blocky beige towers, the distinctive glitched-out shriek of a dial-up modem), the film is still one of the more mature examinations of the web as an isolating force. Kurosawa, mise-en-scène master that he is, depopulates Tokyo; streets bare, buildings empty, people rarely even close to each other. And when they are, they stand at odd angles from one another, or they mosey along aloofly as if they were NPCs in a video game. But this isn’t an internet scare film, or God forbid, a preachy cautionary tale, even if the log line of the film (computer ghosts make people kill themselves and/or vanish) has a distinct goofy B-movie semi-The Happening quality to it. It’s directed with great skill, tension ratcheted through the roof, score ready to bellow at a moment’s notice. But importantly, it’s worth noting that even in 2001, Kurosawa has the good sense to frame the internet as a tool rather than as a carnival of horrors. Pulse doesn’t have the gooey 80s technophobia of Videodrome, or the PC-as-hentai-fuck-portal sleaziness of Demonlover, even though it shares with with those two movies a preoccupation with how media affects behaviour. The key difference is that Pulse mostly leaves capitalism out of the equation; Max Renn sought ratings, Volf Corporation sought a contract. The victims here didn’t ask for any of this. No victim ever does.
Crucially, the affected (infected?) people here aren’t internet addicts or hikikomori types. They have been traumatized by an image, by an interaction they’ve had online. Taguchi (Kenji Mizuhashi) was at working at home when it happened, and Ryosuke (Haruhiko Kato) was connecting to a new ISP. And the others, the Lot’s Wives of the bunch, got infected because they just had to see. They have the entirely human, entirely understandable reaction of pulling their peers out of the ghostly Forbidden Room, which incidentally, reads like the name of one of the bootleg snuff-feed websites from any number of these kinds of movies. They become casualties of their own empathy, because who gives a rat’s ass about empathy on the internet? And even if they don’t, like in the case of Michi (Kumiko Aso), they get to see their friends in the direst of straits. But the Forbidden also reflects a perverse truth about a good chunk of console cowboys: they want to see the Bad Thing. It’s the allure of the transgressive. The movie purports that the missing have become ghosts, shadows on the wall, but they might as well just be at home, grappling with what’s on their screen. The internet is nor symptom nor cure; it simply exists as another conduit for the best and worst habits we have.
As the film goes on, the computer ghosts pivot from being an antagonist that has to be vanquished to a Babadook-esque force that can only be grappled with. Except here, instead of the Pyrrhic victory of containment, the trauma successfully takes all comers. Ryosuke, characterized as the genial newcomer to the internet, reacts to the traumatic material instinctively, turning off the monitor, shutting down the computer, and unplugging the machine for good measure, presumably in hopes of trapping the evil on his screen in the ether. And yet it stays, because as the adage goes, once something is online, it’s online forever. It cannot be deleted, only contended with. The game of whack-a-mole begins anew.
Derek Godin (@derek_g) is a freelance writer from Montreal, Quebec. He is the co-founder and co-editor of Dim the House Lights, a graduate of Concordia University’s MA Film Studies program and a two-time WWE Intercontinental Champion (only two of these are true).