The Horror Honeys: Indie Big Brother Knows What You’re Thinking

Indie Big Brother Knows What You’re Thinking

A Sci-Fi Honey Indie Film Review by Katie

Listening (2015)

Sitting down to take in an indie sci-fi/horror movie is a unique experiment, often viewed with different standards in mind than big-budget counterparts. What an indie sci-fi movie lacks in a bottom line and technical proficiency it usually makes up for in creativity and an unmistakable passion for this particular genre. That’s why it’s so difficult to fault an indie filmmaker – especially someone’s debut feature – for anything that a few extra million dollars in the production budget or more years of experience behind the camera couldn’t remedy. Fortunately, a recent indie from first-time writer/director Khalil Sullins has heart in all the right places: a great concept, capable actors, and thoughtful execution. Listening is a brainy take on the dangers of telepathic communication engineered by science to perpetrate mind control on a catastrophic level. As the film wears on and Sullins attempts to broaden the conceptual scope of his story, however, it’s clear that it would take a lot of indie ingenuity to cram such a massive premise into this tiny feature.

Things begin small and simply enough, as the film focuses solely on the academic and personal relationships of two graduate students: David (Thomas Stroppel) and Ryan (Artie Ahr). The former is a married father, seeking a breakthrough in his work to achieve financial stability for his family; the latter verges into Dudebro territory as someone just as preoccupied with chasing skirts as he is his education. The two work covertly together in David’s garage, using stolen equipment from their university to build a computer that can telepathically read and communicate the thoughts of a human being. Their big break comes with the arrival of Jordan (Amber Marie Bollinger), a saucy blonde flaunting equal parts brains and beauty, who fills in the missing links in their equation. Before too long the trio achieves the ability to wire their brains to communicate telepathically with one another without saying a word, an invention sure to earn them a fortune and scientific immortality. Unless this technology falls into the wrong hands, that is...

Of course it will. It ALWAYS does. 
This concept alone is intriguing enough to sustain a feature-length film, and for a while, Sullins’ story keeps you glued to the screen to see where it’ll go next. Films that center on some kind of scientific breakthrough can routinely be dry or tedious, but the neurological jargon in Listening is written and performed with a credibility that seems well-researched and just plausible enough to be understood by an average moviegoer. As a man possessed by his own genius, David is compelled to follow an idea through to fruition, even at the expense of his own family -- a relatable struggle for many different vocations, from scientists to musicians and artists. Though it brings up more questions than it can answer, at least Listening is a film that dares to pose them: if thoughts can be telepathically communicated, can they also be planted? Can those thoughts turn into actionable suggestions? A computer wired to your brain could tell you that you are craving a cheeseburger, or it could tell you to stab your neighbor in the head with a rake… depending on who’s controlling the computer, anything’s possible, right?

Just please don't do anything to the dog.
If Sullins had confined the film to just focusing on the small-scale issues above, it might’ve been more of a success; by the final third of Listening, however, it’s clear that he may have bitten off more than he could chew. Some characters are revealed to be traitors, high-level government operatives get involved, and the technology gets dangerously close to being utilized for sinister purposes on a global scale. It is during this portion of the film that the runtime feels gruelingly drawn-out and miles away from the thematic place that it began. Sullins also makes the unusual choice of bathing each segment of the film in a different monochromatic tone, making the finished product feel even more disjointed and irregularly paced than it needed to be. With some more practice editing down his next screenplay and gaining experience behind the camera, Sullins could have some well-executed future entries in the world of thriller or sci-fi cinema. As it stands, however, Listening ultimately descends into a patently amateurish first feature that could’ve used a great deal of polish to really make it shine.

The future of Google Glass is terrifying.
Indie sci-fi/horror filmmakers: you got this. Keep making innovative, thought-provoking, and entertaining works of cinematic art, and I’ll always be less inclined to take issue with other aspects of a film that are not up to par. It is true that indie films are held to a different standard than, say, a film with billions of dollars and decades of filmmaking experience behind it; but there are many that are clearly just jumping-off point for an artist to truly find and express their creative voice. For all the ways that Listening occasionally comes off as the project of an amateur, the only real sin here is that Sullins’ many great ideas couldn’t be harnessed into a more succinct, cohesive cinematic statement. With time, I have no doubt that Sullins will find his footing, and deliver us a knockout feature in the years to come.

Sci-Fi Honey Rating: Two-and-a-half mind control devices out of five.