‘Users’ Review: Brave New World

“Users,” a new essayistic feature documentary from the artist Natalia Almada, deals in a kind of paradox. While the voice-over narration considers how technological progress has inured us from beauty and intimacy, the film demonstrates marvels of film technology — underwater photography, helicopter shots, breathtakingly crisp close-ups, sinuous slow motion — that affirm the opposite.

“Could the Wright brothers have imagined that flying would be so commonplace that we’d be disinterested in the miraculous bird’s-eye view of the earth below?” Almada asks — even as she shows us drone shots of oceans and highways that provoke undeniable awe.

This negotiation between techno-pessimism and techno-fetishism is at the heart of “Users,” though Almada’s scattered movie struggles to keep them in balance; her broad, rhetorical voice-over is a poor match for the complexity of the film’s images. Almada was inspired to make the film after giving birth to her son and newly confronting technology’s decisive effects on our relationships. Her view of the present anticipates her child’s future: In interludes throughout the film, she describes familiar realities — childbirth, grocery shopping, 24-hour days — in the past tense, as if they were part of a bygone history. It’s a nifty dystopian conceit, but it reinforces the air of presumption that sands down the pleasures of “Users.”

The film is at its best when it allows its images and sounds to let us feel things without naming them. At a waste disposal factory, crushed electronics clatter like a symphony, which flows into the rumble of a freight train. Deep inside a grimy ocean, industrial divers float around pipes holding fiber-optic cables, the veins of our information era. Mingling beauty and terror, trash and wonder, these scenes evoke the elusive temporality of technology, which moves us backward and forwards at the same time.

Not rated. In English and Spanish, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour and 21 minutes.


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