Tuesday, January 12, 2016

OTHER HALVES (2015): A Killer App Takes the Screen



OTHER HALVES (2015), the first indie feature from filmmakers Matthew Price and Kelly Morr, shows what happens when technology is able to learn too much about its users. Although it has plentiful horror and sci-fi elements, it succeeds best as a social satire of the twenty-something generation (in general) and those who work in the world of tech startups (in particular). It also provides a refreshing view of all of this from the female perspective, using an almost all-female cast to tell its story.



Background and Credits


Price and Morr co-wrote OTHER HALVES, making use of their close ties to the San Francisco tech community for input and guidance while developing their concept and writing the script. Afterwards, they split up the remaining above-the-line duties that were behind the camera. Price directed and Morr co-produced with Curt Chatham (who was also 1st AD).

Morr also took on the role of second unit director. Amanda Driggs headed up production design, which used the incubator offices of a real-life tech start-up as its primary location. Tobias Deml did the cinematography, using Blackmagic camera gear. Don Stroud edited the film in post. Erick Del Aguila provided the film's original musical score. The VFX (a major feature of this film) were created by the team of Stanisa NaumovskiRupak PariyarBibek Shrestha, and Stroud.

Financing for the film (managed by executive producers Trevor Crafts and Brian A. Hoffman) came in part through successful crowdfunding on Indiegogo. A quote from the film's campaign page encapsulates the funding challenge that the filmmakers overcame:

We filmed Other Halves on a shoestring budget by capitalizing on our connections and resources in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and by recruiting a talented cast and crew who were all passionate about the project. We are almost at the finish line but need a little more capital to help us complete the film for release. 
Your contribution will help us add visual effects, complete the sound mix, and create the tone of the film through music. All of this will help us get Other Halves into film festivals, and ultimately find a distributor.

OTHER HALVES features a young ensemble cast that includes Lauren Lakis, Mercedes Manning, Lianna Liew, Melanie Friedrich, Sam Schweikert, Megan Hui, and Carson Nicely.

Story


The official story summary (via IMDb) goes like this:

A team of programmers develop a revolutionary new dating app called Other Halves. On the night before the app is set to launch, they discover it causes strange side effects: users lose all self-control, becoming amoral, lascivious, violent... evil. They consider shutting the app down, but... Evil is profitable.

Instead of requiring users to fill out a lengthy online questionnaire about their likes and dislikes, Other Halves examines their digital histories (as discovered through their smartphone usage habits) to pair them with someone similar. Its "team of programmers" (plus boyfriend) includes:

Lauren Lakis

Devon (Lakis): One of the coders on the team and a fitness enthusiast, her healthy, common-sense approach allows her to recognize the dangers inherent in the app . . . but can she resist its temptations?

Mercedes Manning

Jasmine (Manning): The uptight project manager, who's the first to fall victim to "codebrain" from the app. The problem is, she likes it.

Megan Hui
Beth (Hui): The graphic artist on the team, she's a bit repressed despite having the "perfect boyfriend".

Carson Nicely as Mike

Mike (Nicely): He's a little too perfect as a boyfriend. And he just doesn't see what's coming.

Melanie Friedrich

Jana (Friedrich): A bit too literal (partly due to speaking English as a second language) and stiff, but a good programmer. Can't stand Elle, although they used to be friends.

Shawn (Schweikert) shows off his coding chops to Beth (Hui).

Shawn (Schweikert): The nerdy "nice guy" who crushes on girls he can't get. Smart enough to know that something's very wrong with Other Halves.

Lianna Liew

Elle (Liew): A former insider who has been absent during the app's development, she returns on launch night to assert her claim to being the inventor of Other Halves.

Unfortunately for some and fortunately for others, the app causes a condition called "codebrain" when users view it on their phones. How this situation comes about and who is responsible is a mystery that does not become clear until the third act. What is clear from the beginning is the results of getting "codebrain".

In the final cut, the film begins with a promo for the Other Halves app featuring Devon as spokesperson. This scene establishes the film's premise. The story then proceeds in a non-linear fashion, through flashbacks and flash-forwards that jump between launch night and previous events.


Commentary


OTHER HALVES is a pastiche of cinematic genres. Basically a non-linear, science-fiction film in the tradition of David Cronenberg's "eXistenZ" (1999), it deals with the dark side of digital technology as it interfaces with human psychology and social relations. It adds horror of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde variety, filtered through the lens of 1980s slasher films, that amps up the consequences of using the technology. A dose of rom-com-style social satire (targeting the twenty-somethings of today) takes the edge off the seriousness of the issues that the film's horror/sci-fi elements raise, while adding a few of its own at the same time.

A significant difference from the films and genres that OTHER HALVES references is its female perspective. All but two of the principal cast members are women. In the story, it's the women who conceive of and develop the Other Halves app. By contrast, the two male characters are shown as basically ineffectual and rather subservient. They're caricatures of stereotypical young men: the hunky "perfect boyfriend" (who fights feeling intellectually inferior to women by trying to be brainy) and the nerdy "nice guy" (who crushes on the women who are attracted to his male counterpart, yet struggles in vain to escape the "friend zone").

This opens the door to wry sexual satire. The film is as critical of its female characters as it is of the males. Each woman has allowed herself to be typecast by society in some way that she struggles to transcend. The Other Halves app appears to be the perfect solution to this problem -- completing oneself finding one's "other half" --  but it doesn't work in the way that the characters imagine that it will. It works all too well in another way, bringing out hidden personality traits and repressed desires. Along these lines, OTHER HALVES presents an interesting take on the role of the "final girl" -- or, should I say, "final girls" -- in classic slasher films.



The horror elements of OTHER HALVES are well done, but they could have been stronger -- given an ideal world that rarely exists: one complete with full artistic freedom, a lack of budgetary restraints, and a full armamentarium of production and post-production resources. My reason is the premise of the film. The Other Halves app leads to a complete loss of inhibitions that causes its victims to be ruled by their basic instincts: sexuality and aggression. If the app causes this transformation in a way that makes people become "evil", the characters should engage in increasingly transgressive behavior.

Ultimately, this would result in very bizarre and gory killings that would terrify the audience. While the body count is high and blood flows and spatters in the film, the terror does not reach this level. Moreover, the sexual behavior caused by the app should become increasingly kinky as the characters lose their inhibitions. While there is plenty of nudity and sex in the film, it is relatively tame, although it works well to advance the story.

Technology and sex: Mike (Nicely) and Beth (Hui) go at it in the office kitchen.


One problem with trying to push these boundaries is that OTHER HALVES is a first feature film for most of the filmmakers involved. The suggestions above would likely get the film a hard R or NC-17 rating, something that might make it harder to attract investors and distributors. One way to pull it off with artistry (and avoid the aforementioned problems) would be to use the story's inherent surrealism to depict the violence and sexuality in a Lynchean way (as in "Mulholland Drive" and "Blue Velvet"). Of course, it also helps to be David Lynch. But if a major distributor offers to finance a big-budget remake . . . .

Leaving the world of fantasy filmmaking and returning to the film that was actually made -- there are many positives in it. The cast members work well together and have good chemistry. For me, the standout performance was Lauren Lakis. Her character's transformation, which she handled with skill, was the most dramatic of the film. Her performance in the third act -- particularly the closing scenes -- brought the quality of the horror up a few notches for me. Lianna Liew comes in a close second -- her portrayal of Elle's unbalanced nature will make many viewers remember their craziest friend or partner. Finally, the cinematography, VFX, and film editing are superb, especially given the budget limitations of an indie film.

Summary


OTHER HALVES is a good first feature film from a rising group of talented filmmakers and actors. Although the film's horror pulls some of its punches, the melange of genres that it encompasses and its creatively non-linear storytelling will satisfy all but the most hardcore horror fans. Its social satire and female perspective make it more than worth a watch.

TFK's Rating (on IMDb): 7 out of 10 stars


Disclosure: One Oh One Radio Pictures provided TFK with access to an online screener of this film for review purposes only. This website and its author received no monetary compensation for this review.