We’ve all been alone inside our heads a lot recently, and the question “why am I having weird dreams” has reportedly surged as a Google search over the past year. Natalia Almada’s “Users,” which won the directing award for U.S. Documentary in Sundance, is perhaps best appreciated as one of those peculiarly vivid dreams. Like them, it is made of uncanny imagery and strange echoey mood. But also like them, it comes apart under the scrutiny of the more logical, waking mind, and dissipates quickly in daylight.
In the beginning there’s a baby, being rocked in a mechanical crib. The baby is crying, then quiets, then falls asleep, and as this is an infant not yet capable of artifice or performance, it’s a fascinatingly unfakeable sequence to watch play out in real time. All the while a voice muses at us, apparently from a future far enough away that biological processes like breastfeeding and vaginal childbirth have passed out of the realm of living memory. The voice (Almada’s own), poised in an implacable monotone at exactly the balance point between incredulity, pity and envy, is talking of her distant, anthropological past, but it is our now.
That sci-fi concept is arresting, ambitiously placing the viewer in conspiracy with its project of looking at the present tense with future-perfect eyes, reflected in the futurist perfection of Bennett Cerf’s frequently astounding photography. The contours of landscapes and interiors are so sharp as to be surreal; the world made into an abstract concept by the hyper-clarity of its presentation, and by symmetries so unexpected they need to be perfectly still and smooth just to keep us from getting dizzy.
Whether they’re overheads, looking down from weather-balloon height, or the recurring motif of a child’s face (Almada’s son) caressed by the cold reflected colors of the screen in which he’s engrossed, the pictures remain in this startling, expansive register. But in her voiceover, Almada, who has made one fiction feature but mostly works in documentary form, shuffles through half-formed ideas too randomly to gather these scattered wonders into an identifiable thesis.
As well as the future-person, there are several other perspectives within the guiding monologue track. One, perhaps the closest avatar for Almada herself, is that of a new mother fretting about her role, and nature’s, in her child’s life. Will he love his programmed, coded childrearing devices more than he loves her? Will he “remember the taste of spring water?” Then yet another skein of thought is almost nostalgic about the very tech that causes anxiety elsewhere: the fiber-optic transoceanic cables that carry digital information back and forth across the globe are made to seem almost forlorn because “soon we will forget they’re even there.”
The film’s hypnotic rhythms can become soporific at times. It doesn’t help that so many of its spoken arguments are phrased as questions the speaker is uninterested in answering or further investigating. Indeed, much of the speech appears formulated to take advantage of the fact there can be no reply.
When she ponders, “Did Henry Ford know that his invention would one day remake the world?” over a shot of a highway bridge, it seems we ought to be struck anew by how very far we’ve come since the Model T. But if Almada’s attention immediately drifts away, yours might not, and when you think into that question, well, Ford wasn’t known for the modesty of his ambitions. It’s likely that his more expansive visions did include something like our modern highway reality, if not something worse — an interpretation inconvenient to the ministry of vaguely catastrophist technophobia that “Users” preaches.
Such diffuse, sometimes contradictory ideas sit at odds with the definitive clarity and beauty of the images, and also the scintillating, Sabatier edge of Dave Cerf’s glimmering soundscapes, including a score performed by the Kronos Quartet. If “Users” were a “Koyaanisqatsi”-type experiment or a Nikolaus Geyrhalter film, presented without verbal commentary, its exceptional technique might actually bring us to the opposite conclusion to the doomy one Almada loosely draws.
In a vertical farm, we frictionlessly ascend the endless stacks of seedling trays laid out beneath buzzing lights. Stunning, high-definition waves crest and break in the slowest of slow motion. And one almost literally breathtaking sequence winds us deep into a forest fire, into a landscape of livid earth and flaming branches, where the toxicity of the air would surely make raw human visitation impossible — the camera like a Mars rover, transmitting from a hostile environment. That these marvels can be created only through the intervention of RED cameras, precision-programmable drones, digitization and Dolby Atmos becomes, unexpectedly and unintentionally, an eloquent argument for embracing cutting-edge tech, whatever idle, dreamy unease it may inspire.