Credit: Lionsgate
by Ayeen Forootan Featured Film Genre Views

Latency — James Croke

June 17, 2024

From VR to AI and NFT, from Metaverse to cutting-edge computer games and interface technologies, it’s quite clear that both our existential and psychological states are so enormously affected that, perhaps, our entire perception of the world no longer has a stable baseline, but is instead locked into a perpetual cycle of mutation. Even our very definitions of art and entertainment don’t seem immune to these constant shape-shiftings. While some puritanical cinephiles may still defend the idea that cinema should remain strictly faithful to its purest and most “authentic” aspects, other — some would say more progressive — aficionados openly welcome such novelties as fruitful. Fortunately, in fostering a very eclectic approach, James Croke’s debut feature Latency seemingly suggests a third alternative, which can simultaneously be seen as retro and futuristic.

The film follows Hana (Sasha Luss), a young, Converse-wearing, Red Bull-imbibing professional gamer who, due to her acute agoraphobia, takes refuge in her small, dimly lit and rundown apartment — frequently reading more like a locked and bolted self-made fortress. She is surrounded by multiple monitors and gadgets and mostly occupies herself with endless gaming. But as far as Hana (also nicknamed “has been”) appears to be living in somewhat of a cyberpunkish nowhere, Croke’s keen depiction of his INTP protagonist — who keeps an old Gameboy as something of a personal, nostalgic passion — not only instantly establishes this character’s obsession for the simpler, arcade times of childhood, but also gradually reveals the essential throwback cinematic quality at play which, even if only loosely, connects Latency to the spirit of many cult video store flicks of yesteryear such as Tron, WarGames, or Flight of the Navigator.

Waking up to the sound of a knock at the door, after Croke’s camera briefly emphasizes Hana lying on her bed in a beautifully shot composition, we are ushered into an anticipation of how the fragile boundaries between truth and imagination, reality and nightmare, are about to collapse as a brand-new product, Omnia, arrives for Hana to test. It’s an electro-encephalographic device that, via attaching to one’s head and accessing the person’s neurological system, is supposed to simply read the user’s mind and facilitate the daily actions (think Neuralink). It’s an enticing product for Hana, that is before its threatening side effects and malfunctions reveal themselves. Everything soon begins to fall apart, leaving Hana out of control as she tries to check the functionality of the bizarre AI gizmo so that she might regain her glorious days of high-stakes gaming tournaments.

By taking the shape of a very slow-burning sci-fi/horror, Latency mostly remains patiently and tonally controlled, sticking to an observational approach in order to gently delve into Hana’s subjectivity-filled and scarred psyche informed by her childhood traumas (especially regarding her deceased father), chronically subconscious anxieties, and paralyzing phobia. Only occasionally visited by her bestie and neighbor, Jen (Alexis Ren) — with whom, Luss effortlessly shares a fair amount of on-screen chemistry, punctuated with a handful of easygoing conversations and banter — and the unnerving presence of a mysterious little girl and a ghostly apparition in the building’s corridors, Croke (already practiced in stage and screen art/production design), with the assistance of some well-crafted VFX sequences and a few moderately enticing twists, provides plenty of opportunity for his lead actress to showcase her skill as a performer within the minimalism of the film’s spaces, all while the tension-rich underlying atmosphere builds alongside various soundscape designs and J-Punch’s synth-pop/industrial ambient score.

Although it’s fair to argue that Latency may skew toward the slightly schematic in order to fully develop some of its backstories or mete out all of its conceptual ideas in a convincing way, the truth is that the spiraling narrative still helps Croke to keep his film on more experimentally playful ground; it feels more freely attuned to the lighthearted simplicity of an absorbing, mood-driven B-movie, which can also often be realized as a revamped amalgam of arthouse films. From David Lynch’s psychological surrealism to Steven Soderbergh’s spontaneous experimentation within generic frameworks to the impression of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion remixed with David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ and John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness, the influences here are felt. Which is to say that Latency, if not entirely original in style or flawless in its crowd-pleasing, is an imaginative, trippy, and modest indie that resists aesthetic overindulgence or perplexing rhetorical angles. It’s solidly conceived and tautly executed, the effort of an emerging and knowledgeable filmmaker who has a sharp awareness of new possibilities for the medium during this age of continuously escalating hyperreality.

DIRECTOR: James Croke;  CAST: Sasha Luss, Alexis Ren;  DISTRIBUTOR: Lionsgate;  IN THEATERS: June 14;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 34 min.