Review: Come True
3 April, 2021
When I started this blog, I was envisioning some in-depth essays about computing and stuff.1 So far, this hasn't panned out, and unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your tastes) I feel lazy enough to keep it that way, at least for now. Sorry.
Instead, I'm taking a sharp right turn and reviewing a horror movie. Well, horror with sci-fi elements. I've been a fan of director Anthony Scott Burns' music and oeuvre of short films for a long time. Burns takes a lot of inspiration from the oft-vaunted horror greats - a fact that he makes sure to mention on social media - but also manages to put his own unique spin on things. His second entry into feature films2 is his take on one of the classic thematic staples: dreams. As Burns says...3
Dreams are highly intriguing. It’s where we work out our issues, who we are, what we fear.
We all have dreams, but Come True's main character, 18-year-old Sarah (Julia Sarah Stone) has rather horrifying ones, constantly waking up in the middle of the night. This is exacerbated by an unspecified feud with her mother,4 forcing her to sleep in parks, classrooms, and playgrounds. When she sees the notice for a sleep study, it seems like it is just what she needs. She'll have somewhere to sleep, and all she'll have to do is ask a few questions. Well, that's what it seems like at least.
It's an enticing premise, and Burns knows how to make the opening acts of the film compelling. Although he is rather light on the plot detail - fair enough, given its unimportance - you still end up keenly sympathising with Sarah's situation. In a way, this choice is an ominous sign of things to come later in the film. In horror, there are always clues to problems lurking around the corner, and this is no exception.
Unfortunately, the nightmare sequences aren't very interesting. Although they can be legitimately frightening and suspenseful at times, too often they are overlong and of increasingly distant relevance to the film's plot - that is, until the very end, where they bounce back into relevance like a boomerang. Until then, they are some of the least interesting aspects of the film. The same can be said about some of the non-oneiric scenes: often you see Burns leave the camera rolling a little bit too long.
Nevertheless, Burns manages to set the film's tone with gusto. The dream-like atmosphere is complemented by long, partially-lit hallways, churning rows of cathode-ray monitors and control panels, and ominously lit scientists monitoring our protagonist. Apparently, Burns himself did the VFX in addition to the cinematography and direction, but were I not informed of that, I wouldn't have noticed a thing. Backing the score is the appropriately ethereal sound of synth-pop duo Electric Youth, working alongside solo artist Pilotpriest (aka Anthony Scott Burns as well). It's great stuff, and their reprise of "Modern Fears" stands out in particular. All these elements unite to comprise a somewhat disconnected and dreamy take on the 80s retro sci-fi vibe du jour, clearly inspired by films such as Alien and Altered States. However, Burns pulls it off exceedingly well - particularly impressive given his name is on the credits more times than in a Hideo Kojima game.
As the film progresses, things start to go a little more pear-shaped. The chief researcher is an appropriately wisened old guy, but a particular nerdy young scientist, Jeremy (Landon Liboiron) takes a perverse interest in Sarah, breaking rules and scientific ethics for her. Through him, we discover that the study is investigating the technology to peer into dreams, and appropriately unsettling things are starting to occur. At first, Jeremy's role is an excellent subversion of misogynistic writing, but a certain later scene feels voyeuristic and seems to reinforce those same tired old tropes. In the second half of the film, he shows up much more prominently. Again, this is a hint that Burns has left about what's coming, and I'm talking about the film's quality as well...
The last portion of the film - i.e. the final one or two acts,5 is easily the worst half, and I don't say that lightly. Progressively, the plot gets choppier and more thematically dissonant. The pacing gets a lot worse, and the story seems to lead nowhere. Certain details stretch plausibility, and characters vanish from the film. Some of this can be explained by a detail later in the film, but given the viewer doesn't know that yet, it just seems like bad writing. Although I'm not big on the cruciality of screenwriting, this quote3 from Burns explains a lot:
For me, making movies is more about resting on emotion than a perfect screenplay.
This is all of in service of an ending which feels both unrewarding and cliché. It's very controversial online, and though I personally didn't like it, it's at least interesting. Ideally, I'd create something new from whole cloth, but I'd at least change the way which the final twist is revealed, which reads like an internet meme. I wouldn't be surprised if Burns was inspired by an insipid Reddit joke; if he was, props to him for at least making a good three-quarters of a film out of it.
Still, despite the disappointing conclusion, Burns shows a lot of potential, reminding me why I liked his previous work. His use of atmosphere and tone is marvellous, and given the mixed opinions online, you might even like the ending. It's a movie of highs and lows, one that's worth watching despite its flaws. No matter what happens, I'd like to see what he creates next.6
I still have a list of around 10 ideas for posts that I tell myself I'll get around to eventually... or so I tell myself. ↩
Although Burns had previously directed Our House, he feels that the final result didn't comport with his creative vision. Again, this is something which he's not afraid to share. ↩
Burns is somewhat light on the narrative, a detail which I'll touch on more later. ↩
All of the acts are names after Jungian psychological concepts, which also feature heavily in the film. This feels a bit tired, and although most viewers wouldn't notice or care, outdated to me given the discrediting of much of Jung's ideas. ↩
Hopefully he doesn't promote Joe Rogan again though. ↩