I haven't seen the original Japanese film, "Kairo," upon which "Pulse" is based. There was enough here to make me want to see the original, though, because the central ideas in this film are very interesting. I suspect that much of the core of the original was lost in translating the story into a summer film for an American audience.
The essential element of the story here is the idea that the technology that was created to connect us and make our lives more interesting is equally capable of sapping our individuality and will to live a real life, as opposed to giving ourselves up to thing like the Internet and cell phones. These things are meant to augment an already full existence, but when they become the most important things in our lives, we soon lose ourselves entirely. The ghosts in this movie are what is left of a person who has abandoned themselves to technology. They can "only exist where there's a signal," as the movie puts it, because when there is no signal, there is no life for such people. They rely on the real lives of others to give substance to their own artificial, inhuman existence, in other words. This is a powerful idea, and I wish that "Pulse" had taken more care in developing it.
Instead, "Pulse" touches on this theme from time to time but sacrifices much of its importance to become a summer horror flick targeted to an 18-24 year old demographic without giving its audience much credit for its intelligence... and that's too bad, because the film winds up doing the very thing that the story should be a warning against doing. It sells its soul in the end.
That's not to say there aren't some good scares here. There are certainly some very effective scenes in the film that will raise the hairs on a few necks. Considering that there is absolutely no gore anywhere to be seen in "Pulse," it does manage to frighten viewers with some potent ghostly images. Horror-savvy audiences will recognize elements from both "The Ring" and "Night of the Living Dead" at work here. Unlike the latter horror classic, however, "Pulse" tries too hard to shift between the plight of its central group of characters and the demise of civilization at large, diluting both and leaving me wishing that it had focused on one or the other.
The acting in "Pulse" is nothing special. None of the characters ever fully develops. Other than the special effects nightmare that happens to them, one never has the chance to feel any connection to them before they evaporate in a puff of black ash. Considering how much the main theme of the movie rests upon the idea of someone's losing their will to live, that's a big problem. It would have been much more effective to show the transformation of people who actually have lives into depressed shells than what happens in "Pulse," where we see people who live vicariously through computers stop living altogether. There isn't much contrast between the two states; it's all a matter of which side of the computer screen a character is sitting on at any given moment.
Still, if you're up for a couple of quick and effective scares, there's something to be said for "Pulse." It could have been so much more, though, with just a bit more work. Ah well. I'll have to see if "Kairo" did any better.