Now on Hulu, Ultrasonic is a specific type of indie sci-fi thriller that makes the most of itself with limited resources. Director Rob Schroeder and writer Conor Stechschulte bring a bunch of ideas to the table, arrange characters and locations within them, and craft a “puzzle” film that hopefully ends up putting it all together without any pieces falling down the chimney or being eaten by the cat . This has to do with gaps in the narrative, optical illusions, and weird lab settings that could add up to aliens, pseudoscientific woo-woo, or something on the spectrum in between. Maybe it will hold together or maybe it will fall apart; let’s find out
ULTRASONIC: STREAM OR SKIP?
The essentials: It was (sigh) a dark and stormy night. An unnatural but beautiful royal blue sky loomed over the blackness through which two spotlights slashed. A board with nails sticking out of it. tires, torn. The rain that fell like buckets, very full buckets. A man, Glen (Vincent Kartheiser), slides from the car to a nearby house. drenched. Art (Bob Stephenson) lives there with his wife Cyndi (Chelsea Lopez). Can Glen use the phone? His iPhone is soaked, but was it in this condition before he got out of the car and into the rain? Maybe there’s no cell service out here. It has to be. Here Glen, here’s a towel, put on this robe, sit down, have a drink, have another drink, then another. It’s late. Just stay here tonight, the nearest garage and motel are many miles away, and oh by the way, you’re welcome to have sex with Cyndi. She’s about 20 years younger than Art, who isn’t shy about speaking out about his depression, which likely has something to do with his inability to please Cyndi.
Nice people. accommodating. Too nice! TOO ACCORDING. But Glen is a little drunk and Cyndi is sweet and serious. The next morning Glen wakes up in an empty house, gets dressed and walks down the street. Then the title graphic, which looks like the product of a Texas Instruments home computer, or maybe a Commodore. do you remember them Some time has passed. Glen still looks wet. Sloughy how he sloughs everywhere. Should we read this? Maybe, but we know people with bad haircuts and postures like understuffed stuffed animals, so maybe he’s just always like that. Art knocks on his door and Glen is not happy to see him. Glen found the board of nails, but does he really think Art sabotaged Glen’s evening so he could bring Glen into the house and talk him into doing it with his wife? Seems far fetched doesn’t it? By the way, Art has a video camera and he goes to great lengths to hook it up to Glen’s TV so he can show Glen pictures of Cyndi, specifically Cyndi who is pregnant. But… Glen thought he didn’t… and couldn’t… the mechanics of it… but I guess the memory is fuzzy?
We meet two other characters, Katie (Rainey Qualley) and Alex (Chris Gartin). She is lonely in an apartment all the time, he comes and goes. Thing is, sometimes Katie is obviously pregnant and sometimes not, and sometimes Alex looks like Art. It has something to do with mirrors I think. This is where the movie starts not adding up, like a broken Texas Instruments calculator. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, because it’s sort of our job to put the calculator back together and see if it works. Sorry for mixing metaphors. There are scenes where Glen seems to have done the right thing for Cyndi and they live together preparing for the birth, and scenes involving people in a lab/research setting, mainly Dr. Conners (Tunde Adebimpe) and his assistant Shannon (Breeda wool). I won’t say more lest the spoiler choppers flap away to report me to the authorities.
Which movies will it remind you of?: Ultrasonic is Chris Nolan on a fraction of his usual budget. It definitely has more in common with memory as The prestige and beginning, but is certainly inspired by all of them. Think too primer or The vastness of the night in terms of high concept/lo-fi dynamics.
Notable performance: For complicated reasons involving spoilers, Breeda Wool plays the only character who appears to have a conscious conscience; The film probably wouldn’t be viable without her sensitive performance bridging the gap between two types of characters.
Memorable dialogue: Shannon gives us hope for some clarity on this confusing plot when she says, “It will all make sense as we move on. I promise.”
gender and skin: Nothing remarkable.
Our opinion: With “puzzle” movies there tends to be a breaking point where we either get sucked into the intrigue or we think it’s more trouble than it’s worth. Ultrasonic 49 is the former and 51 the latter because it ultimately tests our patience more than it rewards it. Schroeder gives slow revelations about the nature of what is happening and why, drops too slowly piques our curiosity but hits his emotional hook too late. I was frustrated by its pacing and flattened tone, and somewhat dissatisfied with the ending the film reaches. It tries to create tight tension, but the logic behind it isn’t solid, and the answers it gives us feel more muted than insightful.
The point of all this is, well, I’m not sure. The film tackles issues of ethics in science and politics, but these strands are ill-defined and too broad and obvious to be effective. It raises implications about the nature of memory and identity, but the characters are too loosely defined to raise serious concerns, and play second fiddle to the plot and its many intricacies. It’s unfocused and dragging, and the plot holes are too obvious, e.g. if the Glen character had a single friend, relative or colleague who might cause concern, the performance would be over in a matter of seconds. And I think all the pieces of the puzzle are there, but maybe it’s not worth digging out the one that got kicked in the dirt under the stove to complete it.
Our appeal: SKIP IT. The best films of this kind give us a bit of work while entertaining us at the same time. Ultrasonic feels more like work than entertainment.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more about his work at johnserbaatlarge.com.
electricity Ultrasonic on Hulu