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Ocean waves crashing in slow motion. Solar panels sprawling as far as the eye can see. A port worker stacking multicolored shipping containers. A little boy staring blankly at a screen.

These striking images and so many more comprise the poetic documentary “Users.” The latest from Natalia Almada, which earned her the documentary directing award at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, is a mesmerizing amalgamation of sight and sound. As producer, writer, director, and editor, the Mexican-American filmmaker has crafted a feast for the senses.

Working with her husband, music and sound designer Dave Cerf, and her brother-in-law, cinematographer Bennett Cerf, Almada vividly explores the increasing encroachment of technology and automation into the natural world. She creates a vibe that feels like an eerie stream of consciousness, often accompanied by the dark, melancholy strings of the Kronos Quartet. But her mission is also clearly personal, as she incorporates footage of her two young sons, a toddler and an infant, playing in a bathtub, finger painting, or napping. The video of her younger son taking his tentative first steps at a park is far more artful than anything the rest of us could ever capture on our iPhones.

So, yes, back to technology. Almada wonders early on in her frequent narration how its omnipresence will shape her children’s upbringing, serving almost as a second mother. “Will they love her more?” she ponders. “Will they love her perfection more than my imperfection?” Her understated tones, coupled with the crisp minimalism of Bennett Cerf’s wondrous cinematography, create a hypnotic mood.

And yet, because “Users” is so captivating from a technical perspective, it’s frustrating to discover how scattered it is narratively. Besides worrying about the perils of machines at the expense of humanity—not exactly a novel concept—Almada expands her scope as she goes along in a way that dilutes whatever message she might have had. It’s like she’s trying to get her arms around too much at once, even though the film runs barely over 80 minutes. The result is a strange contradiction: that “Users” could be so precise and controlled from an audiovisual perspective yet meander so much in its storytelling. It makes you wonder whether Almada should have made a series of shorts on a variety of topics instead. 

Terrifying footage of a California wildfire—growing from a smolder and crackle to a devastating rager—is a detour, but at least it speaks to the climate change crisis, which tangentially connects it to the rest of her cause. But by the time she visits an elderly oil man, lamenting the loss of his pals while singing and stroking his sweet chihuahua companion, Little Bit, it’s like: What are we doing here? What is the point of this? Other musings aren’t as profound as she perhaps intended them to be: People didn’t always know the gender of their babies before giving birth, people used to drive to work and get stuck in traffic, people never had enough time. (We still don’t, actually.)

But eventually, Almada brings it back around in a way that’s more focused, as she takes the potentially ominous nature of artificial intelligence and makes it intimate. It’s a topic that couldn’t be more relevant, especially given the current Writers Guild strike. We see her in a recording booth, reading a series of phrases and giving permission for her voice to be used for this purpose. Later, we hear both the AI and authentic versions of her voice uttering the same words as her baby sleeps.

The fact that there’s only the slightest difference between them is chilling, raising one of many questions for which there are no quick and easy answers.

Now playing in theaters. 

Christy Lemire

Christy Lemire is a longtime film critic who has written for RogerEbert.com since 2013. Before that, she was the film critic for The Associated Press for nearly 15 years and co-hosted the public television series "Ebert Presents At the Movies" opposite Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, with Roger Ebert serving as managing editor. Read her answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here.

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Film Credits

Users movie poster

Users (2023)

81 minutes

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Cinematographer

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