“Soundwave” Takes on High-Concept Sci-Fi on a Budget

Amazing what you can do on a budget.

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At some point as a child, you were probably hungry and took the gamble of complaining to your parents. With any luck, you would get exactly what you wanted, but the more likely scenario is familiar: you’re told there’s food in the house and to get creative. Getting creative is what brings us a new indie thriller, Soundwave. And while no Decepticon is involved, Soundwave does make its own twist on a sci-fi concept as a teenager, Ben (Hunter Doohan), finds himself hunted by both the police and organized crime for an invention he created that allows its user to hear into the past.

Written and directed by Dylan K. Narang, Soundwave takes a tricky concept and doles out its explanation slowly. We don’t see Ben’s creation of the invention — it’s already there and functional when we meet him, a meek teenager working in a small, struggling radio repair shop in the city — and Ben is already mixed up in using his device in various ways. One of those ways is working with a sleezeball detective to help him listen into the past to solve crimes; another is eaves dropping on his crush, a suicidal girl name Katie (Katie Owsley) with whom Ben is infatuated. It’s clear that while Ben created the invention with good intentions — to discover the mystery of what happened to his father — those good intentions give way to the more nefarious draws that such a powerful invention would provoke. His machine has the ability to pinpoint the eternal sound waves from anyone, allowing him to listen to any conversation within the past several months.

Of course, an invention that powerful comes with special interests, which throws Ben in the mix between those who found out about his device and want it. You can (and should) forgive the flaws of its low budget: Soundwave takes a high-tech concept and depicts its effects creatively. And it’s a fun concept so long as you can ride with the suspension of disbelief, although Soundwave does itself few favors by failing to explain how Ben went from radio repair shop to alpha-level world genius as he struggles to pay bills. Where Soundwave struggles most is that its lead character, and its plot, are blank canvases with little to say.

Ben is immediately portrayed as a “good kid,” one who wants to help keep a struggling store owner afloat and would rather live in the background than draw attention to himself. His meekness leaves him reactive to most situations though, and he falls short of any particular charisma. Similarly, the rest of the characters — from sleazy detectives to crime bosses to love interests — offer little to cheer for. There is a moment or two of attempted humor to make Katie, Ben’s crush, charming, but the attempts are few. As a result, you never feel invested in its characters, and the film holds an emotional tone of the color eggshell white.

We see Ben respond to other character’s actions more than seeing him relentlessly pursue his own goal, the reason he created the device in the first place. Soundwave‘s plot suffers accordingly, morphing into an ongoing question of how Ben will get out of a situation rather than if he’ll learn something new that changes him as a person or the larger world around him. Aside from Ben’s immediate dangers and clever idea, Soundwave often feels like it’s about nothing.

Still, I would recommend Soundwave for aspiring filmmakers at least for seeing a low-budget film tackle a high-concept idea without relying on special effects as a smokescreen. We are well accustomed to that…think Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets category of poorly-made movies that Hollywood is all too eager to make. Soundwave instead stands in front of us naked to tell its story, and though I don’t find much of a story to tell, I still find it refreshing to see.

Soundwave is now available for streaming on demand.

Find all of Jordan Calhoun’s Rotten Tomatoes-approved movie reviews at Jordan Calhoun at the Movies.

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  • Jordan Calhoun is a writer in New York City. His forthcoming debut book "Piccolo Is Black" is a celebration of the common adaptations we made while non-diverse pop culture helped us form identities. He holds a B.A. in Sociology and Criminal Justice, B.S. in Psychology with a minor in Japanese, and an M.P.A. in Public and Nonprofit Management and Policy. He might solve a mystery, or rewrite history. Find him on Instagram and Twitter @JordanMCalhoun

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