The Human Surge is split between three characters in their respective countries. Exe in Buenos Aires, Alf in Mozambique, and an unnamed woman in the Philippines. Williams doesn’t have a conventional story to tell. Rather, we follow the characters as they meander through their lives, all attempting to connect online but ultimately failing to do so. They walk around in boredom trying to find the next thing to do only to find nothing. Unable to connect online, the characters are forced back to reality but as Williams portrays it, connections in reality also fail. In that failure, there lies a sense of alienation. Not of the existential or Marxist kind but one simply of loneliness despite crowded surroundings.
The Filipino woman leaves a social gathering at a swimming hole to go to a cyber-café but discovers the café is closed and winds up alone in a village. Alf, bored with city-life, treks into the mountains with a friend of his, their journey silent. Finally, Exe is fired from a dead-end job at a supermarket and spends most of his time visiting friends to use their computers.
But then through a camera that at once felt intimate with its wandering gaze, Exe’s life and my own became more intertwined with distinction. Williams employs different cameras as well as styles. Exe’s story is told through a super 16mm camera that’s never steady, evoking cinema verite but more importantly, the human behind the apparatus. Williams is there with his camera, watching, and we too become observers of Exe, noting the small details of his world. There’s the appearance of American pop culture and its sway over the rest of the world. On his left-forearm, Exe sports a Storm Trooper tattoo.
Later on, Exe walks through a flooded neighborhood. Once again, Williams stalks behind him, watching. Exe’s demeanor and that of the passing citizens is one of nonchalance
Exe spends the bulk of his narrative attempting to go online. In one scene, Exe meets up with his friends at a park, and soon after, the group decides to hit up a Wi-Fi spot in order to hop online. They discover, however, the Wi-Fi isn’t working. In a different scene, Exe visits a friend’s home, working his way through the crowded kitchen and into a bedroom. There, he attempts to use the computer, but the internet doesn’t work. And even later still, we watch Exe fumble around with his own computer at home which refuses to work. These scenes all share the distinct element of silence following the failure of going online. Whether Williams focuses on Exe and his friends, Exe with a stranger, or even Exe alone, silence pervades the atmosphere. Exe sits in a daze from others and this is where the sense of alienation arises. Without the internet, it is as if Exe and those around him have forgotten how to communicate and can only keep each other “company” in silence.
Yet, there exists two key scene in Exe’s story, a moment where he is finally able to connect online. The first happens when he visits a different group of friends, who just so happen to be performing sexual acts in front of a webcam. In this scene, Exe is laughing at the childish play of his friends (who are all male) and doesn’t seem too nonplussed when they tease him. In the second scene, Exe becomes the voyeur, watching Alf and his friends play around in front of a webcam. It is here where online communication becomes key to connection.
Williams slowly zooms in on Exe’s computer-screen and once the scene is over, the movement of the camera reveals that we are actually now occupying Alf’s side of the screen, to which the camera changes from Super 16mm to digital. Digital communication not only breaks the silence but allows Williams to move through the world, literally shifting the film’s setting from Buenos Aires to Mozambique. It is through those pixels that for a few moments, characters can truly find company.
Williams’ vision of a future based on electronic communication is a bleak one. The change from super 16mm to digital for the rest of the film also brings about a stylistic change, especially for the tone. Williams keeps the surveil nature of his camera, but what’s noticeably gone is movement of the camera itself; the shaky movement. The camera instead becomes fixed and more distant and consequently, cold and mechanical, thus reflecting the alienation of the characters. This is especially true for the last arc of the film, which opens up on a crowded swimming hole in the middle of the jungle.
Towards the end of the scene, the camera takes a high-vantage point and takes on the appearance of someone watching from above, in secret. Williams constructs the composition so that we’re made to notice one woman out of everyone else surrounding her, and what’s so striking is the silence and how alone the woman appears despite being so surrounded. Ultimately, with The Human Surge, Williams presents a world where the reliance on electronic communication brings about a fundamental change to what it means to be human, as reflected by his camera style (s): a movement away from physical, intimate spaces and into an electronic and more seemingly intimate world. But this change never exactly comes about due to the failures of each characters’ quest. Instead, they find themselves alone, trapped between two worlds.