Sundance 2018 films tackle technology's pleasures and perils
From revenge porn to growing up on YouTube and Instagram, movies in this year's festival explore the darker side of the digital age.
Richard TrenholmFormer Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
Got your snow boots and your popcorn? Let's go to Sundance and join film industry luminaries checking out the edgiest new indie flicks and eye-popping VR experiences, jumping in Lyfts to go a hundred yards to the next screening and schmoozing hot talent from both sides of the camera.
Following on from last year's tech-inspired Sundance hits like "Ingrid Goes West", "Marjorie Prime" and "The Discovery", many of the features, documentaries and VR experiences debuting over the 10 days of the Sundance 2018 film festival reflect our preoccupation with technology. These are some of the stories to look out for that examine human stories and timely issues in our digital, tech-obsessed age.
Many of the films featured in snowy Park City, Utah, focus on what it means to be young in the digital age. "Eighth Grade", written and directed by comedian Bo Burnham, is about a young YouTuber's search for the human connection that eludes her in the real world. Like last year's award-winning Instagram fable "Ingrid Goes West", this year's "Skate Kitchen" centres on a young woman who discovers a new life via Instagram, in this case joining a real-life skateboarder crew.
"Hearts Beat Loud" stars Nick Offerman and Kiersey Clemon as a father and daughter with an unexpected hit song on Spotify. And "White Rabbit" sees comedian Vivian Bang co-write and star as a quirky performance artist who gets into scrapes doing odd jobs via TaskRabbit.
Two films explore the consequences of our hidden digital lives being exposed. "Rust" is a Brazilian coming-of-age drama about a high school kid whose intimate video is revealed to the whole school. And "Assassination Nation" sees the evocatively-named small town of Salem unravel into stylised insanity when someone releases the townsfolk's browser histories, direct messages and other online secrets.
Documentaries "Inventing Tomorrow" and "Science Fair", meanwhile, follow kids heading to international science events. At the other end of the scale, "Leave No Trace" stars Ben Foster and Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie coming into conflict with the modern world in their determination to renounce tech and live off the grid.
Sundance is a home for hard-hitting documentaries, and several of this year's films rip their stories from headlines about corporations abusing citizens and civil liberties in search of profit.
"Akicita: The Battle of Standing Rock" shows us the infamous protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline through the eyes of young Native American protesters. "Kailash" infiltrates factories where children are used as slave labour, while "The Devil We Know" confronts the health and environmental impacts of the DuPont chemical company.
And "Dark Money" examines the sinister influence of recent US laws allowing unlimited, anonymous donations from corporations to flood elections.
Several films use a single location or confined concept to ratchet up the tension. Technology again provides the lens through which to view the stories -- literally, in the case of "Search", which plays out entirely through a computer screen. Director Aneesh Chaganty quit his job making ads for Google to make this tense thriller, in which John Cho plays a desperate father trying to find his missing daughter by searching various forms of online communication.
Meanwhile, "The Guilty" is a Danish thriller in which a police dispatcher must unravel a heinous crime while confined in the police station. And "A Boy, A Girl, A Dream." unfolds in a single take as a couple hang out on election night.
With sexual harassment and racial tensions dominating headlines, a number of films tackle these difficult and complex issues of the day. Documentary "Half the Picture" interviews women directors including Ava DuVernay and Penelope Spheeris about their experiences tackling stereotypes, biases and discrimination against women filmmakers. It couldn't be more timely.
Tales of young womanhood include "The Miseducation of Cameron Post", in which Chloë Grace Moretz plays a teen undergoing controversial sexual orientation conversion therapy, and "The Tale", in which Laura Dern unravels troubling memories of her first sexual relationship.
There are also a number of biographies of powerful women including Gloria Allred, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Vivienne Westwood, Joan Jett, Jane Fonda and pop star MIA.
Several films tackle contemporary race issues. "America To Me" is a multi-part documentary spending a year with black high school students. The relationship between the police and black youth is tackled in "Monsters and Men", a drama about the aftermath of a police shooting, and "Crime + Punishment", a documentary about whistleblowers within the NYPD.
Among the documentaries exploring science and its implications are "Genesis 2.0", which looks at the potential for genome sequencing to resurrect woolly mammoths. "Anote's Ark" meanwhile examines the battle to save low-lying Pacific nation Kiribati, an archipelago threatened by climate change and rising sea levels.
"The Cleaners" is a documentary about "digital scavengers", the content moderators employed to view and if necessary delete inappropriate content from the internet. The film explores the effects upon a person of perpetually viewing graphic imagery from war zone photos to hardcore pornography. Also tackling the darker side of the internet is "Our New President", an alternative view of American politics assembled from the conspiracy theories and outlandish propaganda propagated by Russian state media to fuel the rise of "fake news".
While you may never see some of Sundance's more left-field films in your local multiplex, it's a safe bet you'll get a chance to see Jon Hamm in political thriller "Beirut", written by "Bourne" series writer Tony Gilroy. Among the other films headlined by big names is "The Catcher Was a Spy", starring Paul Rudd and Paul Giamatti. It's based on the remarkable true story of Moe Berg, a famous major league baseball player who switched from catching foul balls to catching Nazi scientists in World War II. His mission led him to a lecture by famed German physicist Werner Heisenberg with a gun in his pocket and orders to shoot.
Nick Offerman and Paul Giamatti also join Rashida Jones to voice to a new animated version of classic tale "White Fang". While Peter Dinklage and Elle Fanning are the last people alive on earth in "I Think We're Alone Now", written and directed by Reed Morano fresh off the back of helming the first three episodes of 2017's television hit "The Handmaid's Tale".
Meanwhile "Sorry to Bother You" unites 2017's breakout stars Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson in the story of a telemarketer tapping magical selling powers.
Stars also make their mark in a number of virtual-reality experiences. Go behind the scenes of Wes Anderson's upcoming animated feature "Isle of Dogs" with a VR experience depicting the film's actors discussing their roles through the film's stop-motion puppets. Also in VR, a cast of hip-hop legends such as Rakim, Queen Latifah, Slick Rick, Jamie Foxx and Ice-T voice Will.i.am's interactive B-boy zombie comic "Masters of the Sun". And "Wolves in the Walls" takes the VR viewer into a hauntingly-animated Neil Gaiman story.
The film industry can explore cutting-edge storytelling using virtual reality at Sundance. VR experiences on show at the festival take you inside the spiritual visions of an Amazonian tribe, colourfully animated music videos, Nasa training or the 1970s punk scene. For example, "Elastic Time" involves real-life Harvard-Smithsonian physicist Tony Stark (no relation to the Iron Man superhero) walking you through black holes and curved space-time, while "Hero" places you in the devastating aftermath of a bombing as you race to help.
I'm looking forward to trying out new advances in VR technology, such as group experience "VR_I", and HaptX's full-body haptic suit allowing you to feel as well as see virtual objects.
As one of the earliest and biggest events in the annual film industry calendar, Sundance sets the tone for the year ahead. Netflix and Amazon are in Park City with their cheque books alongside traditional movie studios and distributors, so fingers crossed even the indie-est flicks and most obscure gems will be online or in your local theatre soon. You won't even have to brave the snow.
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