Film Review: Creative Control

Set roughly five minutes in the future, this bleak sci-fi social satire tracks the downfall of a hipster ad executive who spirals into a virtual-reality netherworld.
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The meeting convened at the beginning of Benjamin Dickinson’s tech-frazzled Creative Control contains a nearly perfect example of what a dead soul sounds like. A passive-aggressive free-fire zone of territorial scrapping, greed and ambition disguised as creativity, and lines like “philosophy is so on-trend” that will probably have been uttered in some Manhattan office by the time you finish reading this, the meeting is ostensibly about the launching of a new brand of virtual-reality glasses called Augmenta. But the story that follows is less a statement about the dangerous implications of this technology than a nettlesome black comedy about the virtual, transactional nature of modern relationships.

David (writer-director Dickinson) is an ad executive who fits in so well to his bleeding-edge open-plan office, with its mixture of self-aggrandizing faux edginess and capitalist servitude, that he seems programmed for it. His aggressive ambition and take-no-prisoners approach to personal relationships is backstopped by a frantic anxiety masked by a basketful of addictions: prescription drugs, technology, liquor. Once he’s put in charge of figuring out how to sell Augmenta—whose designer frames are made to look like a more commercial-friendly version of Google Glass—David simply turns it into yet another addiction.

Although David has a steady girlfriend, passively depressed yoga teacher Juliette (Nora Zehetner), he’s barely aware of her. His idea of companionable chatter is to reassure her, “You’re building your brand.” Instead, he’s besotted with Sophie (Alexia Rasmussen), a struggling fashion designer who’s dating his best and seemingly only friend, Wim (Dan Gill), a frighteningly mustached apex predator in the form of a fashion photographer who never saw a model he couldn’t bed. Although whatever company finally makes a commercially viable product out of this concept probably won’t advertise this fact, Augmenta turns out to be an excellent tool for sociopathic misery-magnets like David who like to fixate on unobtainable women. A couple of conversations between Sophie and David while he’s wearing the glasses and voila: Augmenta’s recordings let him create a virtual Sophie who will do and say anything that he wants. David can throw out all the chaff he wants, like hiring cross-disciplinary musician Reggie Watts (playing himself) to be the face of Augmenta, but the reality of the situation is that he would prefer to hide in the imaginary or go clubbing with Wim than deal with the real.

There is an illusory quality to almost everything we see in Creative Control. Shot with a sleek and gauzy black-and-white palette that wouldn’t look out of place in some high-end, long-form ad campaign about racially mixed, trend-setting Brooklynites with cool sneakers, it’s swaddled in cozy and seductive layers of consumerist artisanal chic. Well-versed in the ways and mores of creative elites, Dickinson tries to critique their tunnel-vision existences primarily by way of David and Wim being self-centered jerks with dangerous amounts of money and recreational time. It’s a less targeted approach than Dickinson used with his chilling but little-seen hippie-apocalypse festival film First Winter and ultimately not all that effective. Dickinson feints at the ways films like Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess and Shane Carruth’s Primer interrogated reality via technology’s dark lens but never fully signs up with that approach.

Movies about virtual reality have always made for odd bedfellows. That’s true whether one’s looking at the grubby dregs of the 1990s’ VR boom (Virtuosity, Disclosure) or newer models like Spike Jonze’s Her (whose hazy fog of future-tech utopianism is similar in feel if not intent to Dickinson’s). There is an inherent disconnect in an artistic medium using sound and vision to convince you of the reality of something that’s by definition false, before adding another layer of distancing illusion. A character like David can look real in a film, but his virtual-reality mistress is never close to convincing. That makes it all the more difficult to fully appreciate the supposedly seductive quality of the technology that’s sending him deeper down the rabbit hole.

By setting Creative Control just barely in the future, Dickinson not only cannily saved on production expenses (see-through phones and monitors that seem suspended in mid-air are about the extent of the new tech on display) but also left himself room to satirize the world that already surrounds us. It’s hardly shocking, though, that David instantly uses his groundbreaking new gizmo not to explore the world at a remove or create something beautiful but to generate an imaginary sex doll. That’s already the world we live in.

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