The “Pulse” trilogy is to the Internet what certain episodes of “The Twilight Zone” are to space travel and computers. (I am going to focus on the second movie, “Pulse 2: Afterlife,” but also discuss the other two films.)
That anachronistic take on tech is one of the main things which draws me to the “Pulse” movies, again and again. I have a soft spot for sci-fi horror that attempts to predict a technology’s future, or anticipate its potential dark side, and completely fails to understand that sector’s trajectory. There are “Twilight Zone” episodes that show humans casually cavorting through the universe by the late 20th century, or where computers are simultaneously far more powerful and far less so than anything in our actual world today. In the “Pulse” movies, the Internet is some primal energy that humans have harnessed for their own mundane purposes, one that will eventually serve as a portal for otherworldly beings from another dimension.
This, of course, is not what the Internet is. The “science” in these movies is mere babble, bearing little to no relationship with the actual universe. And yet just as Golden Age sci-fi like “The Twilight Zone” can be charming precisely because it has such awe for technology, the “Pulse” movies are compelling in their utter conviction that the Internet will unleash an apocalypse and force humanity back to the Dark Ages.
The first film is foundational here, although in some respects it is the least memorable in the series. Starring Kristen Bell as Mattie, a college student with ambitions of being a psychologist (they don’t matter in terms of the plot), “Pulse” details how Mattie’s boyfriend accidentally releases ghost-like creatures from the Internet and, eventually, all-digital technology. Directed by Jim Sonzero, the first “Pulse” is a strong experience visually and viscerally, but not much in terms of developing a franchise mythology. The color palette is saturated in blues and greens, which can be overdone but works given the story’s dystopian themes. It is also sometimes broken by intense red, which again is effective in suggesting menace even in a context that is supposed to be safe. Sonzero has a strong sense of how to use color in ways that subtly reinforce themes in his story, and it works to the film’s advantage.
The film also includes two extremely effective scary scenes. One occurs when a friend of Mattie’s, Stone (Rick Gonzalez), is attacked by the ghost-like creatures and is consumed in a particularly horrifying fashion by a black fungus associated with the demons. The other happens when a character is attacked by an ingeniously designed beastie that seems like a human repurposed for a spider’s physiology. It’s a shame that that guy appears only once in the entire series.
Other than these details, though, the first “Pulse” is as forgettable as the third one. “Pulse 3: Invasion,” directed and written by Joel Soisson, occurs in a world reduced to rubble thanks to the events of the first movie. It tells a rather unsettling story of a 17-year-old girl named Justine (Brittany Finamore) trying to find a mysterious Internet-ghost named Adam (Rider Strong) who hopes to bring the dead victims of the demons back to life. This movie tries so hard to wrap up the plot threads for the larger “Pulse” universe established by the first two films that it barely has time to create a memorable B-plot. Even worse, its resolution to the A-plot feels unclear and unsatisfying. There is a charm to the ostentatiously jargon-y pseudo-science spewed at certain points, and the best character from the second film is given a monologue that counts as the only good thing about “Pulse 3: Invasion.” (This is true if you have an affinity for science-y sounding gibberish mixed with mad scientist mugging.) Other than that, though, it’s a slog.
Then there is “Pulse 2: Afterlife.” There is something about that movie which I cannot resist returning to. For one thing, it takes the creepy premise of Internet ghosts from the first film and expands the mythology in intriguing ways. We get to understand exactly how those ghosts prey upon humans, and the psychological as well as physical consequences of their predation. The apocalyptic conditions wrought by those Internet ghosts has also had a fascinating effect on human culture; we get a sense of a post-apocalyptic world as it might actually turn out if demonic creatures actually did emerge from our digital technology. (It is a more scaled-back version of the full-on dereliction displayed in the third movie.)
“Pulse 2: Afterlife” also has one of the best characters I’ve ever seen in a direct-to-DVD horror sequel. Simply known as the Man in Red (Todd Giebenhain), we see him in the opening of the film wearing a head-to-toe red costume that allows absolutely nothing that isn’t immersed in red to touch his body — not even his eyes. As he walks down the street, he encounters Internet ghosts, and the scene serves as an apt metaphor for the human condition. The Man in Red is surrounded by death and suffering, depravity and danger. He must protect himself… as we should too. It is a compelling moment, and the monologue in “Pulse 3: Invasion” serves as a fitting compliment to it. The Man in Red appears again as the most enigmatic and intelligent character in the film, and we miss him when he’s gone.
The main story is also interesting, however. Without including spoilers, it is an over-the-top melodrama that borders on being a soap opera. When you see it for the first time, you can’t for the life of you guess where it is going. Once it gets there, you’ll either be grateful for the absurdly weird ride or angry that the story had so many plot holes. The protagonist Michelle (Georgina Rylance) is established as an extreme example of online addiction, and the supernatural consequences of that mental illness are an elegant metaphor for related real-life tragedies. Either way, it is an unforgettable experience, and explains why I’ve chosen to recommend “Pulse 2: Afterlife” instead of its prequel or sequel.