I want Khalil Sullins to make more movies.
That may not be the most professional way of beginning a movie review, but after staring at my computer screen in silence for about ten minutes, I can’t think of anything better.
I want Khalil Sullins to make more movies. His debut film Listening (2014) seems tailor-made to take my personal interests in science-fiction into account. The film boasts a fascinating plot about humanity grappling with the implications of technological/scientific advancements, a distinct visual style, captivating atmosphere, and courage. If nothing else, Listening displays courage: in embracing bold stylization and colors in an age of washed-out, gritty sci-fi; in not retreating from the more horrific aspects of the involved science; in not succumbing to a sugar-coated, traditional happy ending.
That’s why it breaks my heart to say that Listening doesn’t live up to its full potential. There are too many leaps in narrative logic, too many cliched character motivations, too many predictable twists for me to give this film the sterling recommendation that I wish I could give it.
The film revolves around two technological savants, David (Thomas Stroppel) and Ryan (Artie Ahr), who, using technology “borrowed” from their university, invent a method of transcribing a person’s thoughts into data. Said data can then be interpreted, allowing an operator to “read” the subjects mind. But they hit a roadblock: the human brain’s infinite complexity renders attempts to decode the data quickly impossible. Realizing that only a human brain can interpret a human brain, they develop a technique to transmit thoughts directly from one person to another.
And then the military steps in. How? Because their assistant Jordan (Amber Marie Bollinger) is a spy. I don’t consider that a spoiler because a) the fact of her duplicity is immediately obvious when she first shows up, and b) we figure it out the first time that David and Ryan dive into her head. Here is what I mean by the film being predictable: early scenes showing stone-faced military men trying to mind-control subjects into killing each other give away that the military will get involved, and that the film will inevitably lead to David and Ryan being captured. In this manner, the first two-thirds of the film feel like narrative auto-pilot wherein their lives fall apart, marriages fail, family members die, and the aforementioned stone-faced military folk force them into government employment at their lowest moments. And here is where the film springs to life.
John W. Campbell, one of the deans of American science-fiction, once said that stories should start as late as possible. If Listening had begun with David and Ryan in the military’s grasp and had involved nothing but their struggles to maintain their humanity and to keep the military from weaponizing their technology, it could have easily been one of the most intriguing science-fiction films of the year.
I won’t say anything else about the film because, despite its shortcomings, I want people to see this movie. But most of all, I want Khalil Sullins to make more movies.