'Listening' Jacks Into Solid Concepts, But Loses Connection

Directed by: Khalil Sullins; Runtime: 100 minutes
Grade: C

It's been the center of conspiracy theories and running jokes for many decades now: the idea of the government using wireless communications and implanted electronic devices to control the thoughts and actions of its citizens. There remains a hitch in that thinking, though, and that comes in the development and universal implementation of devices that could actually accomplish this, which still exists in the realm of science-fiction. Listening, the indie production from Khalil Sullins, attempts to bridge that gap with relatively hard science built from a pair of young, ambitious minds, delving into the logistics and ethical concerns of developing mental communication ... and, ultimately, manipulation. Sharp ideas and philosophical undertones resonate at the center of the film, but lying underneath the conceptual chatter is a collection of stiff performances and meandering personal stories of the scientists, concerned with cleverness above coherent drama.

Listening begins in the twisted, ramshackle laboratory of two Californian graduate students making advances in the field of mental communication. David (Thomas Stroppel) married his wife, Melanie (Christine Haeberman), when they were young, largely due to the conception of their daughter, and while he slaves away at school and in his lab, she works long shifts at a diner to cover their rent and bills. David's co-researcher, Ryan (Artie Ahr), is on the other side of the spectrum: he's a charming bachelor who stays in a small room with his grandmother, scraping enough money together to keep them fed. Both are, of course, penniless, which makes gathering materials for their research difficult and, at times, illegal. They're able to do so, though, and they start making major breakthroughs in their field with a little help from a third voice: Jordan, smartly and alluringly played by Amber Marie Bollinger. Once they've cracked the science, they enter into the realm of connecting to a person's deep, underlying thoughts, something highly coveted by government institutions.

The lack of funds for David and Ryan's research creates both a dramatic conflict and a looming sense of disbelief in Listening, where they essentially become the Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak of telepathic communication with fringe-science experiments and development in David's garage. Underneath the questionable real-world applications -- brain scans, spinal injections, and real-time readouts by way of a half-dozen stolen computers and other gear -- lies an intriguing rush of semi-credible technobabble, selling the illusion of this being feasible home-brewed mental networking. Director Sullins employs jittery camerawork, brash lighting, and sickly greenish-yellow hues to evoke a specific livewire mood in their research, heightened by his concentration on the enthralling implications of what each step entails in their research, selling the illusion with extensive discussion about the details and visual cues involving the tests themselves.

The concepts provide a sound foundation for contemplative science-fiction, but Listening struggles with honing in on dramatic credibility in response to it, weighed down by the stories going on around the research itself. Both David and Ryan's individual situations are heartbreaking, involving the repercussions of hubris, the lingering pain of loss, and the daily struggles that puts them both in desperate need of money and/or a solution, underpinned by the two geniuses' differences in personality. The performance value gets lost in the noise, though, navigated by good-meaning but hollowed dramatic projections from Thomas Stroppel and Artie Ahr, whom struggle to give the repetitive, slowly deteriorating state of their personal lives the right kind of meaningful variation between conflicts. Had the story not relied on their crumbling situations being in concert with the film's elevated stakes, instead giving David and Ryan boundless resources in a lab and letting the science (and resulting suspense) speak for itself, this would've mattered less.

Listening certainly picks up the pace alongside the research's development and how it's discovered by other interested parties later on, creating a briskly-paced thriller hinged on espionage, ethical boundaries, and draconian control through these cranium-attached devices. The situation elevates into an Orwellian nightmare not without a fair share of deeper musings on surveillance and the limitless possibilities of research, but the actual events of the story struggle to keep pace with the endgame that director Khalil Sullins rushes toward, held back by peculiar character shifts and head-scratching plot twists. Wires get crossed in the film's wishy-washy perception of the fragilities and strengths of the mind, which leads to a grand square-off between the might of technology and the human brain's willpower in fighting off such an invasive force. Staying plausible while exploring such a high-concept premise proves to be a tougher nut than writer/director Sullins can crack in his ambitious feature debut.

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