The genius of Futurama was in how its pizza-delivery-guy hero, frozen for 1,000 years, stepped into a new millennium without missing a beat—still poor, still a lovelorn dork, still a delivery guy. People can change, the show allowed, but time and technology won’t do it for them. That can be a difficult lesson, and every new advancement only seems to make it harder.
Creative Control, a droll and deservingly self-satisfied new indie, is effectively a feature-length exploration into the root cause of that phenomenon. Unfolding like a live-action Ghost in the Shell as directed by a young Noah Baumbach, the film is set approximately six minutes from now—far enough into the future that every computer monitor is made out of clear glass, but still near enough to the present that no one can find reliable cellphone reception in New York City. Poised between the way we live now and the way we hope to live next, the film wends through a queasily familiar Brooklyn where everyone is waiting for tomorrow to make them better than they are today, and struggling to understand that simply showing up isn’t going to do the trick.
Director Benjamin Dickinson (a veteran of the commercial business whose only previous feature was the fascinating but little-seen First Winter) stars as David, a young adman at the kind of overbearingly male Brooklyn agency where everyone thinks they work at Sterling Cooper but looks like they work at Vice. The office culture is summed up by an exchange in which an industry veteran asks a co-worker “Are you a fucking genius?” to which the co-worker replies: “No, I’m just younger than you.”
When our story begins, David has been assigned to the biggest client in his company’s history. The product is a pair of Warby Parker–looking glasses called Augmenta, billed as the first “actually convincing” augmented reality system. The device essentially turns the human brain into an operating system. When a user puts them on, real life appears magically enhanced: Facial recognition software determines people’s names, algorithms identify the brand of their clothes, and sophisticated graphics imagine what they might look like without them on.
It’s a powerful tool. In fact, the company behind Augmenta doesn’t really know the full extent of what their product can do. In a flourish of foreshadowing, one member of the development team frames the situation thusly: The firm’s competitors are “out there masturbating while we’re in here actually fucking.” Inside or out, everyone is still just thinking about sex.
That’s especially true for David, who’s given a pair of the glasses to test-drive and immediately uses them to create a malleable avatar of Sophie (Alexia Rasmussen), his best friend’s girlfriend. As his relationship with his own girlfriend (Nora Zehetner, the femme fatale from Brick) deteriorates, David finds himself becoming increasingly involved with Sophie, whether in the flesh or just in the world that exists in the glass on his face. A plastic infinity of information is at his fingertips, and all he can think about is how he can use it to engineer more immersive fantasizes about his forbidden crush. The more we augment reality, Dickinson seems to suggest, the more we reveal what’s true about ourselves.
It’s an ethos that’s reflected in the look of the film, as Adam Newport-Berra’s lustrous, anamorphic black-and-white cinematography makes Brooklyn simultaneously appear both more retrograde and more advanced—seen in high contrast from the window of David’s apartment, the marquee of Williamsburg’s Wythe Hotel could have been transplanted from either East Germany or Alphaville. The aesthetic, complemented by dashes of timeless classical music, effectively creates an alien Williamsburg that often feels more accurate than the one our own eyes allow us to see. That temporal confusion provides the perfect backdrop for the film’s ingeniously lo-fi visual effects, which make Augmenta more convincingly tactile than the technology of Minority Report or its legion of imitators. Even if Creative Control had nothing more to offer it would be valuable evidence that CG, applied with purpose and grace, can be a powerful tool for low-budget filmmakers. If Ex Machina beating The Force Awakens at the Oscars didn’t already make it clear, the future of FX isn’t in spectacle but in sensation.
And sensation—the difference between seeing and feeling—is what this story is about. For all of the film’s precise and articulate compositions (from its fluid long-take opening to its cruelly succinct last shot), the most resonant image in Creative Control might be one of David masturbating alone on his couch as he drools over the mind-blowing illusion in his glasses—it’s futuristic from his perspective, and embarrassingly primitive from ours. Boys and their toys.
Mercifully, Creative Control is neither a screed against the evils of new technology nor a satire of the luddites who retreat from it as a moral imperative. It has disdain for Silicon Valley “disruptors” and for people who can’t wait to tell you they don’t own a TV. David isn’t an especially likable or interesting guy, and Dickinson overestimates our patience for him during the film’s less focused second half, but this deceptively savage film spares a little empathy for everyone. Every character is as much asshole as victim, and none of them seem to deserve the relationships they’re disrespecting or the opportunities that fall into their laps. But that’s the dirty secret at the crux of new technologies and the advertising engine that makes us lust after them: Our ideals seldom line up with our interests.
Captivatingly confident, unsparingly wry, and agreeably cynical about how the black mirror of technology can reveal our worst qualities by reflecting our best selves, Creative Control is the rare blast of speculative fiction that has the temerity not to limit itself to rhetorical questions. “At any given moment there are a million things vying for our attention,” one character declares. “So where do we let our attention fall?” The answer, Creative Control suggests, is always on ourselves.