Ghost Dial: Technology That Haunts, In 'Personal Shopper', 'The Human Surge', And 'Unfriended'

Three movies that show us how technology has opened new paths not only for storytelling, but for the nature of human (dis)connection

Film has always been a medium driven by new technologies, but it’s rare for our devices to become the center of a movie's storytelling. So to have two tech-driven art movies released in the same month is a bit of a cinematic event. Out now, new releases Personal Shopper and The Human Surge take up the banner of digital storytelling previously carried only by genre movies like Unfriended, adding their own twists to the observation of modern digital life.

In Personal Shopper, the new movie from French director Olivier Assayas, Kristen Stewart plays Maureen, an American passing her days in Paris in a job as a personal shopper for a fussy actress after the death of her beloved brother Lewis. She and Lewis were twins, they shared a heart condition, and more importantly, they shared psychic abilities as mediums. In her grief, Maureen is left waiting for Lewis to pass her a sign from beyond the grave. Of course, with Maureen in a state of near complete isolation, Stewart rarely has a chance to interact with a costar for more than a couple scenes — unless you count the costar she carries in her pocket.

As the signals of otherworldliness start to accrue for Maureen, they appear not through flashing lights or flickering candles, but through her iPhone. She begins a back and forth with a mystery number, and as the conversations become more involved, leading her to hotel rooms and murder scenes, the movie becomes more and more fascinated with the tiny screen. The phone is a scene stealer; we become as dependent on the read receipts as Maureen. Whole sequences pass by where Maureen’s presence in the real world seems to be just a placeholder between text messages. When the mystery finally reaches its breaking point, it’s the buzzing of missed messages that creates our feelings of suspense. The crisis of Maureen’s spiritual doubt is not specific to our time, as the character’s obsession with the paintings of 19th/20th-century artist and mystic Hilma af Klint can attest. But with the camera balanced to the blue light of a phone screen, Personal Shopper moves the existential passion play to a new digital stage.

Compared with Personal Shopper, the supernatural never makes an explicit appearance in The Human Surge, but the movie’s characters might as well be ghosts. They are distant and unknowable, and director Eduardo Williams doesn’t seem to want to know them. His movie begins in total darkness, and the brief flashes of the man who will become our first protagonist barely last long enough on the screen to be able to identify him. In The Human Surge, humanity’s indistinction feels purposefully surreal. Exe walks through a flood on his way home from work. His friend insists that in the future, silence will be as loud as a cafeteria, and no one will know the difference. Watching the people in The Human Surge sometimes feels like grasping at the memory of a dream upon waking, but in absence of recognizable characters, recognizable technology takes the spotlight.

In one of the movie’s most memorable scenes, Exe and his friends collect some petty cash by giving each other blow jobs for a webcam. (Pro tip: You know you’re watching #art when someone is filmed with an IRL erection.) It’s dark again, and it becomes difficult to distinguish faces, but the webcam gives the boys an absolute identity that merely existing in the world can’t provide. Despite their individual amorphousness, with the webcam on, Exe and his friends unquestionably become the ones who are watched, and for a brief scene we can completely understand these strangers because of their relationship to the camera. When the webcam returns the next time, it’s Exe who is watching a group of boys, now in Mozambique, as they play games for the internet. Almost imperceptibly at first, we creep closer to Exe’s screen, until we’re so close that the computer takes up the whole frame. From this point, 40 minutes into the movie, we leave Exe and the 16-millimeter camera that followed him behind completely. We enter the world of the screen, and a new story in Mozambique begins.

The Human Surge is experimental cinema, and many critics have noted that the movie’s taste for alienation is probably not the theatergoing ideal of mass audiences. But the moment that the camera elides into a new perspective from across the boundary of analog and digital media is thrilling. As in Personal Shopper’s iPhone haunting, The Human Surge at its best shows us how technology has opened new paths not only for storytelling, but for the nature of human (dis)connection.

As technology becomes an increasingly central facet of modern life, dystopian cyborg stories have resurged over the last several years. Ex Machina, Black Mirror, and Westworld all made a splash with their futuristic stories of robot uprisings and biomodifications gone wrong, but Personal Shopper and The Human Surge represent a technologically fluent new wave of contemporary storytelling. By hewing to the present, movies like these lay out the ways our lives have already merged with our machines, and they’re able to do so without succumbing to the built-in moralism of dystopia as a genre. Whether modern communication is good or bad is almost irrelevant — even if there were a definitive answer to the mystery of technology’s effect on human behavior, would we care enough to actually stop using the devices that bind us? Read receipts and webcams rule our communications whether we’re conversing with a spirit or a stranger.

Personal Shopper and The Human Surge have classed up modern technological storytelling with their ruminations on the nature of connection in modern society, but in this case, the art houses are playing catch-up. Before Assayas or Williams were winning awards at European film festivals for their digital “ghost” stories, genre filmmakers had picked up the challenge of telling stories through technology. Maybe the most extreme example of digital-storytelling experimentation came three full years ago, when the horror movie Unfriended premiered at Fantasia Fest, one of the world’s largest genre-film festivals.

The story in Unfriended is a familiar one — a group of teens are tormented and tortured by the vengeful ghost of a girl they bullied to death. If the plot occasionally seems pulled from the headlines, the real gimmick in Unfriended was the filmmaker’s commitment to telling a story with a computer screen. The movie takes place entirely on Skype call — a trick that required the fito filmmakers to shoot the script in 80-minute unbroken takes. The actors were filmed alone in separate rooms, connected only by a rig made of GoPro cameras and security-cam software, and the final image of cohesion was pasted together by editors in post-production, one click at a time.

Unfriended doesn’t have a deeper point to make about global indifference or the nature of the human soul, and the ghost at the heart of it doesn’t much care about the metaphysical conundrums of life after death. The spectral Laura Barns just wants to haunt the internet and murder some teens. But in all its B-movie simplicity, Unfriended conveys the same existential reality as the one that haunts Personal Shopper and The Human Surge. As our personal lives become ever more tethered to our personal devices, it’s our digital world that feels the most real.

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