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'Pulse' boasts a message, but too few scares

If ``Pulse" is unsurprising as a horror movie (come on: chalky, soul-sucking freaks again?), as a campaign against the Internet, digital piracy, cellphones, and anything that computes anything (like laptops or brains), it's a riot.

Movies are always lobbying for vice -- sex, guns, more Rob Schneider -- but ``Pulse," which opened yesterday without being screened for critics, is a plea for the medium's very survival. It's a stern warning to people who'd rather see ``Pulse" online than go to the gigaplex: download this and die. Not since ``Poltergeist" savaged the TV has a movie been so openly defensive about the competition for your entertainment dollar.

Loosely adapted from Kiyoshi Kurosawa's less coherent but creepier 2001 film, ``Pulse" showcases Kristen Bell, the star of UPN's (whoops, CW's) sleuthing show ``Veronica Mars." Bell plays a psych major trying to figure why her hacker boyfriend hanged himself. The short answer is: He caught a computer virus. Bewildered, she spends the movie trying to figure out how he came down with it and why her other friends, including Rick Gonzalez and pop hootchie Christina Milian, suddenly seem depressed and suicidal. And why is everybody scrambling to cover windows and doorways with awesome red duct tape? To keep out the chalky dudes. Hello?

``Pulse" has stretches where its twitchy, stuttering visual scheme recedes and up sprouts actual dark-'n'-lovely passages. Bell's character suffers from increasingly European and painterly nightmares, and the dreary student apartments look like the sets from ``Seven." It doesn't build into the alluring landscape of scary images the way Kurosawa's movie did, but is probably more cheaply entertaining.

Like Naomi Watts and Sarah Michelle Gellar before her, Bell spends this Hollywood remake of a Japanese cult hit at an emotional dead end. Eventually she teams up with compu-savvy cutie Ian Somerhalder, and together the two form a double-blind alley. This isn't to say we don't care about Bell. When she threatens to turn her back on solving this mystery, my heart jumped: What are you talking about? You're Veronica Mars!

But I'm afraid this is much bigger than anything Veronica's ever had to deal with. We're talking global apocalypse here! This American version, directed by Jim Sonzero and written by Wes Craven and Ray Wright, actually tries to make the original's end-of-the-world ideas more direct. It feels dumbed down and accusatory instead. Nearly every character who enters a chat room ends up dead. It's unclear whether the intended audience will get the message, but if ``Pulse" can't get kids to put down their cellphones, it does seem strong enough to inspire design ideas. Could red duct tape be the hot new dorm trend for fall?

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