Software programmer William Webster (Robert Sean Campbell) has been kidnapped by what appear to be government agents. Inspectors Kavanagh (Jake Vincent) and Hayes (Melinda Marks) are tasked with interrogating Webster after the search engine he developed answers the question “is the government of the United States evil?” with an unacceptable, though well-researched and supported, affirmative. Kavanagh and Hayes want to know exactly how the search engine came to that answer, what information it utilized, and what can be done to change the search result before dissent is sown all over.
Unfortunately, the programming is more complex than simply giving it a new answer, and Webster is a reluctant partner anyway, especially after Kavanagh’s interrogation tactics leave him with a broken hand. Unable to do the coding himself, Webster relies on Kavanagh’s non-skills to work on the complex, ever-evolving code, while Hayes’ patience runs thin and the prospects of Webster getting out of this scenario alive grow even dimmer.
Mark Schwab’s S.E.R.P. (short for “Search Engine Results Page”) certainly has moments of philosophical intrigue, spiked with the occasional performance highlight, but altogether it sells the idea of being trapped in a room all too well. And that’s my main gripe, the film’s repetitiveness of non-action that tends towards tedium.
For large chunks of the film, the inspectors aren’t getting anywhere with Webster, and he’s either insulting their intelligence or alternately cowering out of fear of what they might do. Webster tries to “fix” his search engine, everyone gets exasperated, and we lather, rinse, repeat in the next scene. It fits the situation, can’t imagine interrogations and coerced cooperation are traditionally smooth-sailing, but the philosophical questions raised in the film aren’t intriguing enough in the interim to make up for a film that seems to have no momentum after the main concept is set up.
There are highlights, however. The Murdock character, played by Mark Balunis, is particularly entertaining, in a low-key psychopath kind of way, and the character development in the third act makes for a more interesting film overall. It’s just that the steps to get there sap the energy out of the film.
Visually, the decision to go with black and white works for the overall idea of a surveillance-friendly environment. The aesthetic is a solid choice, and the contrast adds depth to liven up the composition of what is, for the most part, just one or two people talking in a room. The edit is good for what it is; the issue of boredom I’ve mentioned isn’t associated with scenes being allowed to go on too long, or a bloated film, but rather that the scenes that do exist don’t drive the film forward all the time. The pace is balanced regardless, and the film comes together on all the important technical levels.
Overall, though, S.E.R.P. doesn’t overcome the length of time where I found the film to be less than engaging. It sets up some interesting questions and ideas, and moments of performance and character development are strong enough to not knock the film too much, but its energy was lacking, making it too easy for the mind to wander anywhere else. But I guess that’s my privilege; I’m not trapped in a room being interrogated against my will.
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