If you’re able to look past the innate silliness of a killer phone app, you might have a decent time with App, a surprisingly bearable thriller that, in a minimal but intriguing advancement in transmedia storytelling, actually asks viewers to get out their phones and download a tie-in app that supplements the story as it moves along.
Unfortunately, beyond that gimmick, there’s not much to the premise of App. The Dutch film, directed by Bobby Boermans and scripted by Robert Arthur Jansen, follows a college student named Anna (Hannah Hoekstra) who, after a night of hard partying with her best friend Sophie (Isis Cabolet), awakens to find that a strange personal assistant app called IRIS has been installed on her phone. Acting like a pushier version of the iPhone’s Siri techology, IRIS begins integrating itself into Hannah’s life – and she’s happy to let it, so long as it can give her the right answers to questions posed by professors during class.
However, IRIS soon grows more malignant, distributing a sexually explicit video of Sophie to all her contacts and presenting an image of a gun to Anna after a teacher insults her in class. Then, when Anna takes the phone into a shop to have IRIS removed, the app broadcasts a video of Anna walking around her apartment nude to discourage her from continuing in her efforts to get rid of it. That’s not the worst of IRIS’s meddling. As the app becomes more hell-bent on threatening Anna, it begins to mark the people around her for death, and it somehow has the Big Brother-esque oversight to follow through on those threats. As Anna races to prevent the deaths of the people she loves, the nefarious individuals responsible for the app come out of the shadows, revealing a much larger conspiracy.
Some more tech-savvy viewers might enjoy the add-ons, accessed through an app called “IRIS-App the movie” that can be downloaded for free on iPhones or Androids. In a neat trick, the app accesses the phone’s microphone and uses that to sync up with the audio of the film, allowing viewers to start using the app at any point during the film in order to see the supplements. Sadly, there’s nothing really interesting included on the app. Surveillance footage shows what’s happening on screen from a different angle, some scenes continue in silence on the app once the film has moved on, and social media conversations are shown unfolding, some more exciting than others.
The film can be enjoyed without the app – and personally, I would have preferred to watch without my phone constantly buzzing and diverting my attention from the actual movie. It doesn’t add enough to the story to warrant the trouble of downloading IRIS and then simultaneously watching the phone and the movie. Still, the innovative nature of a film that includes a ‘second-screen experience’ should still be commended. App doesn’t ever really fulfill its true potential, and neither do its supplements, but the filmmakers certainly show that it’s possible to craft a decent-enough thriller that incorporates smartphone technology.
What’s happening on screen is, as it should be, far more interesting than the app content. That’s largely thanks to Hoekstra, who turns in a much higher-caliber performance than was required for this kind of film. Anna undergoes a somewhat-rushed journey from smiling college student to kick-ass heroine, but Hoekstra makes every moment count, inflecting each line with palpable dramatic pathos and fully inhabiting the character. Even in the grand finale, when everything around her crosses the line from moderately tense into completely absurd, Hoekstra makes App highly watchable. And, surprisingly for this kind of movie, Anna remains intelligent and fiercely determined throughout, never falling victim to the poor judgment we’ve come to expect from action thriller protagonists.
The plot wrings every last drop of suspense out of several race-against-time action sequences, though it also features some crazy twists that emerge from out of nowhere. In the end, App is a pretty thoroughly mixed bag in terms of story. I was able to pick up on roughly half a dozen large plot holes, though it would probably be nitpicky to list them all here, so I won’t bother. After all, I highly doubt that Boermans and Jansen were going for believability when they set out to make a movie about a killer app. With that in mind, App is extremely entertaining at times. At just 75 minutes, it’s slight enough not to wear out its welcome, and the story doesn’t feel dragged out, for which I’m thankful.
The big confrontation is frustrating in its unwillingness to clear up plot points, and the requisite final scare seems tacked on, but by that point, you’ll be happy to throw all logic and embrace the unquestionable, unlimited power of IRIS. “Watch Out, You’re Next!” the tie-in app proclaims as the credits roll. We can debate the overall quality of the film all you want, but you can be sure that you’ll delete that damned app as quickly as I did – and if that’s not a sign that App has done its job well, I don’t know what is.
Releasing 05/09/14: iTunes, Google/YouTube, PlayStation, Vudu and Xbox.
By no stretch of the imagination is App a great movie, but thanks to Hannah Hoekstra's magnetic lead performance, it's a much more wackily enjoyable one than it could have been.