The remake/reboot cycle has grown so brief that it’s no stretch while watching an original film to start daydreaming about how it might be improved upon in the next stab. Khalil Sullins’s debut, a small-budget telekinesis thriller, has a premise worthy of a more accomplished film or maybe even a cable TV drama: With tech filched from their college, comely misfits of science rig up in a garage a machine that allows two plugged-in people to read each other’s minds. There are mysterious suits after the young geniuses, of course, but more pressing are the queasy, horny truths revealed when crushed-out academics cinch electrodes to their skulls and let their minds mash into each other. One of our lean, handsome science bros exclaims that this is better than sex, an opinion the film encourages through its strobing, fleshy, stop-motion quick-cuts whenever a couple strap their brains together. Complete access to another person’s thoughts here looks something like raving on molly while tied to a chair.
Too bad Sullins doesn’t have a movie’s worth of story out of this premise. Rather than pioneering into the frontiers of the mind, Listening slogs through the most well-traveled pits of screenwriting. Lots of time is wasted on the young scientists’ money troubles, including a sick grandmother and an imminent eviction. The first act is all about Sullins tossing into the air shoes that you know you’ll have to wait around to see drop. The most miserable, and the slowest-falling, involve the film’s women: Melanie (Christine Haeberman), as the wife uninvolved with the project who resents that her husband spends his time on the greatest invention in the history of Earth, and the secretive Jordan (Amber Marie Bollinger), a student we know must also have some outside agenda — I mean, she joins the experiments after second-banana lead Ryan (Artie Ahr) stares at her ass and says, “Give me some gloves, those Bunsen burners are just too hot to handle.”
These roles are awful. When the wife gets her turn in the brain-reading machine, the dumb logic of film plotting means that intimate knowledge of her partner’s thoughts is a threat rather than a turn-on — she isn’t even impressed that her husband’s impossible project works. (Later, she has to ask: “So what is more important? Changing the world — or changing us?”) Bollinger’s Jordan, meanwhile, is a brilliant femme fatale who has the most terrible time keeping the straps of her scientist tank tops from falling off her scientist shoulders.
There are some promising ideas here, and a couple of arresting scenes. For some reason, most shots of the film have been color-saturated to the point of distraction. Early scenes in lab environments are tinted bluer than old Cold Cases, and much of the film’s yellow-green first half seems to have been shot through a filter of Mountain Dew. The paranoid last half-hour, which expands the palette to whites and reds, is an improvement, both in look and storytelling, but it’s not enough — instead of delaying the revelations, Sullins now flings them out too quickly. Still, a couple scenes set in Cambodia (and not glazed in post-production color tricks) demonstrate that Sullins has chops and vision. Maybe he could reboot this after he’s had a couple more years’ experience.
Written and directed by Khalil Sullins
Opens September 11, Village East Cinema
Written and directed by Khalil Sullins. Starring Thomas Stroppel, Artie Ahr, Amber Marie Bollinger, Christine Haeberman, Steve Hanks, and Arn Chorn-Pond.