Credit: Icarus Films
by Daniel Gorman Featured Film Horizon Line

Users — Natalia Almada

June 15, 2023

Users, Natalia Almada’s new essayistic documentary, is a text at war with itself, equal parts poetic rumination on the place of modern technology in our day-to-day lives and a pearl-clutching, won’t-somebody-think-of-the-children paean to the “good old days.” It’s, of course, perfectly reasonable to fear or otherwise distrust the role of big-tech, Silicon Valley types and their very real meddling in the fabric of society, but Almada’s concerns are less pointed and less illuminating than they are frustratingly broad and vague. It might not matter if the filmmaking was strong enough to overcome these intellectual shortcomings, but Users quickly becomes repetitive, utilizing the same formal schemes over and over again. It ultimately feels like an episode of Black Mirror directed by Nikolaus Geyrhalter, except less interesting than that marriage might sound.

Users begins with Almada’s hushed voiceover contemplating how, in the past, people did not know the gender of their babies before they were born. She says that you had to soothe the baby and feed it with your own body, but they are now rocked to sleep by machines instead of humans, and given formula instead of breast milk. As is mostly the case for this largely literal film, Almada then inserts a long scene shot in extreme closeup of a baby being rocked in a machine. It’s one thing to grapple with one’s own experiences, but here, in the first few minutes of her project, Almada makes huge, sweeping generalizations about child-rearing. Not every family can afford these types of automated rockers, nor do they work equally well for every child. Further, while the infant formula industry has some deep sins in its past, there are plenty of new mothers and babies who have genuine medical reasons for breastfeeding not being viable. This stuff only takes up a few minutes of screen time, but it sets the tone for the remainder of the film. 

A mournful, dirge-like score from the famed Kronos Quartet furthers the impression that this is a dour elegy for bygone days, as Almada wonders aloud about roads crisscrossing and rupturing the ground and how we now take flying for granted. Accompanying these musings are perfectly symmetrical compositions of a highway bisecting the widescreen frame,  match cut with a plume from an airplane streaking across a perfect blue sky. Almada returns to this symmetry repeatedly, except when drone footage takes a bird’s eye view from on high and slowly pushes in on or over a landscape. It’s impressively scaled, but the effect eventually becomes overused. Later, the juxtaposition of a water processing plant and a breastfeeding baby makes clear Almada’s concerns about “purity,” before she moves on to a tour of a modern farm where food is grown indoors and mostly without soil. This concerns her, too. “Will my children ever drink spring water?” she asks. It’s a fair question, but the subject of climate change is never broached here, even during a long sequence shot near a raging forest fire. Almada mentions only that it is “fire season,” and then allows us to contemplate (admittedly stunning) images of burning foliage. 

But how is this connected to anything else, beyond the filmmaker’s own sense that this, too, is bad? By placing a scene like this several minutes after a scene of a child playing a violent video game, she seems to be equating the two — editing tends to create these kinds of equivalencies. Almada then interviews an elderly oilman who complains about how the “industry is dying.” He’s sitting in front of some pumps talking about the old days and how he’ll stick with his land until the day he dies. For maximum cuteness, the man plays with a little dog during the interview and hums a song. Is Almada really stumping for old-fashioned, mom-and-pop oil drilling? It’s an off-putting sequence, seemingly imported from an entirely different film (there are no other taking head interviews in the rest of the movie). Of course, the oil industry isn’t dying at all — it’s just gotten bigger. The placement of this scene immediately following that of the forest fires is pointed, but a better film might make more of a meal out of it.

It might seem churlish to criticize a movie for what it’s not doing rather than engage with what it is doing, but Almada casts her net so wide, touching on so many topics across a brief 80-minute runtime, that viewers’ heads might spin from all the tenuous connections and glossy, hi-def cinematography. It all looks very impressive, no doubt, but nothing adds up to anything. There’s no point of view here other than a sense of disconnection from and dissatisfaction with the world — worthy subject matter, but presented here in such a fragmented way that it barely registers. Almada ends Users with another curveball, this time filming herself signing away her voice to an A.I. firm in perpetuity and revealing that what we’ve been hearing this whole time is a simulation. It feels like a stunt, and like everything else in the film, it merely hints at a massive subject without doing anything with it. The only discernible things here on real display are impressive access to equipment and a generous travel budget. To actually learn anything about the world, you’d need to watch Our Daily Bread, or Manufactured Landscapes, or Earth, or A Marble Travelogue, or The Human Surge — there are plenty of worthy options. Users isn’t much more than a sizzle reel about one person’s anxiety.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 23.

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