Cast: Thomas Stroppel, Artie Ahr, Amber Marie Bollinger, Christine Haeberman, Steve Hanks, Arn Chorn-Pond.
Running Time: 90 minutes
Synopsis: Two young scientists (Stroppel & Ahr) discover a way for computers to read human thoughts, but as they perfect their method it appears some nefarious sorts have their own plans for such work.
Listening is not the kind of independent science fiction film that wants to exist quietly and garner a cult audience. It is instead a fantastic and intelligent effort that holds a mirror up to its Hollywood counterparts and shows how budgets, names, and effects, mean nothing when pitched against a compelling story and those involved actually giving a damn. It would serve film fans well to note the name of director and writer Khalil Sullins, as it is highly unlikely that he will not be making bigger waves in the future, and on a larger scale.
Taking place mostly in garages, University campuses, and in brightly lit government offices, Listening cleverly creates a claustrophobic tension of being caught in our own minds. Breaking free from such a prison are David (Stroppel) and Ryan (Ahn). A pair of geniuses who have created a machine that can read and print the thoughts of a human once hooked up. The only problem being that it can take hours to convey a single thought. Their work is given a sudden injection (literally and figuratively) by fellow student, Jordan (Bollinger). Soon their work allows them to view each other’s thoughts. Such a narrative device also allows for great exploration of character motivation, as their deepest darkest thoughts come bubbling to the surface. It’s moments like this that push the film past its initial premise, which is something many films fail to do these days.
Granted, some of the character tropes are fairly formulaic at first. David has the threat of eviction hanging over his head which in turn affects his marriage, while Ryan has a dying relative that needs support. However, Sullins manages to make this work by gradually raising the stakes. Many low-budget sci-fi films are more than content with scratching the surface of their clever initial idea, but Listening takes it as far as it can, and as it needs to go. With the early introduction of nefarious nameless types conducting their own experiments along a similar path, we know this is going to build into something both exciting and thoughtprovoking.
Sullins’ script, aided by terrific performances, is the breakout star here. It contains intelligent and cleverly structured ideas, while never getting bogged down in pseudo-science or pompous philosophical debates. There are still moral and ethical quandaries to be dealt with, but no character gives us a hackneyed speech that we’ve all heard before. This is streamlined intelligence, with is made all the more clever as it doesn’t pander, condescend, or over explain itself. It’s also this film’s prerogative to entertain, with enough moments of humour and tension to make this a brilliantly balanced film.
Listening is a very exciting film for all those involved whether they had part in the making of it, or are part of the audience. The character arcs, story developments, and themes are all introduced and finalised in a very specific amount of time. Not too long, not too short, Listening is a film that feels as though it’s near perfection is the result of very talented individuals who embraced their limits and pushed them just far enough. A couple of moments feel ‘budget’, and the flashforward beginning is something I could have done without. But when you take a pair of characters and a plot that would probably have been stretched over a Hollywood trilogy, reboot, and remake, while never once being as satisfying or coherent, and create something this rewarding, then both the film and those involved deserve all the luck in the world. An entertaining and important sci-fi necessity.