The artistic experimentation in "The Human Surge 3" pushes the cinematic envelope, but it also pushes back, incorporating the flaws of its digital technology in the film.

‘The Human Surge 3’ Offers a 360-Degree View of the World

Don't judge a film by its title—director Eduardo Williams’ latest release at TIFF is a thoughtful stunner

The artistic experimentation in "The Human Surge 3" pushes the cinematic envelope, but it also pushes back, incorporating the flaws of its digital technology in the film.

Courtesy of Rediance

El auge del humano 3 (or The Human Surge 3) captures characters and landscapes in Sri Lanka, Taiwan and Peru in ways you’ve never seen. The experimental pseudo-documentary is director Eduardo Williams’ sequel to his gentle, expansive 2016 film The Human Surge—don’t be confused, there was no second movie—but it pushes the limits of the moving image using a 360-degree camera and the uncanny aesthetics of open-world video games, like Grand Theft Auto. It’s a masterpiece of artistic experimentation that not only pushes the cinematic envelope, but allows it to push back in equal measure, incorporating the flaws of its digital technology into its narrative, creating, in the process, an avant-garde vision of a queer utopia without borders. There’s nothing quite like it.

The Human Surge was the Argentine director’s first feature film, and while watching it isn’t a pre-requisite for The Human Surge 3, doing so at least provides a baseline understanding of his cinematic viewpoint (the original film is available on Kanopy, Metrograph, Prime, and Apple TV). Over 97 minutes, it follows three sets of working class friends in Maputo (the former capital of Mozambique), Bohol province (in the Philippines) and Williams’ hometown of Buenos Aires, as they wander liminal spaces, from their cramped bedrooms to the factories where they work. Its lo-fi, home-video appearance provides a sense of piercing intimacy, especially in scenes where they engage in group sexual acts over webcam to make some quick cash. The three segments, while not strictly connected, are spiritually linked by digital communication—but they are still at the mercy of financial, linguistic, and geographical boundaries.

The Human Surge 3—a title that seems to signify a leap forward in evolution—is a portrayal of what might happen were people no longer subject to these physical limitations. It opens with the same dimly lit digital video aesthetic as its predecessor, following a brand-new set of characters loitering on a Sri Lankan beach, walking towards a distant horizon curved by a wide camera lens. They speak a combination of overlapping Sinhala, Tamil, and English mixed into every track, as though their dialogue were recorded in a sound booth, and were emanating from some omniscient vantage—not unlike the dialogue in video games.

Except for a few CGI flourishes near the end, the movie’s visual trickery is achieved in-camera. The wider lens captures more of the surroundings than in the previous film, but it seems to be at the mercy of digital glitching reminiscent of MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games; World of Warcraft and the likes). Anytime the camera momentarily pans back and forth, objects and even bodies occupy space that was previously empty, seemingly having spawned out of thin air just off-screen. As the characters wander through a town filled with colorful, igloo-shaped houses, other people approach them with surreal instructions and snippets of dialogue as if they were NPCs, or “non-playable characters” with pre-programed lines.

"The Human Surge 3" follows characters in Sri Lanka, Taiwan and Peru.

Courtesy of Rediance

This gaming-inspired approach is similar to a fellow fall film festival camera experiment, Harmony Korine’s Aggro Dr1ft, which shot entirely in infrared. The two films may be vastly different in appearance, but they incorporate, into their purview, the perspective of people raised on interactive digital media as a reflection of themselves. In recent years “NPC” has even become a derisive term, referring to people who supposedly don’t think for themselves, but The Human Surge 3 is all about re-humanizing the dehumanized in novel ways. At one point, one of Williams’ characters even falls down at random, “malfunctioning” until a crew member steps in from off-screen and mimes replacing a battery in their back. But while these cheeky gestures all hint at an understanding of the physical world through digital, gaming, and science fiction lenses—the way an entire generation has grown up interpreting reality—they’re simply a foundation for the camera’s fluid motion, and its relationship to each human subject. That these people may be at the mercy of some sort of “programming” (social, digital, or otherwise) doesn’t make their stories any less vital.

When the film, like its predecessor, shifts locations (this time to Peru and Taiwan), it begins following entirely different sets of characters once more. However, the Sinhalese and Tamil dialogue of previous subjects begins spilling over into these scenes, in what initially appears to be disconnected voiceover. Without warning, the invisible Sri Lankan characters begin making observations about their Taiwanese surroundings, commenting on their inability to read the local street signs, as if the camera were a portal that had made them privy to these spaces and images. Then, as Williams’ wide lens pans back to a space that was previously empty, the Sri Lankan characters themselves materialize, as if out of thin air, in a country where they don’t belong.

Then again, the sudden nature of their appearance, and the shocking casualness with which they treat it, makes them feel at home and at ease in this foreign space. As they continue to wander, it’s as though they’ve been magically transported by some digital glitch in the machine (or by the camera itself), rather than by traditional travel. The film, it seems, has conspired to move them through space and time, and before long, characters from all three locations are acquainted with one another—which is not to say that we see them meeting, or becoming acquainted, but rather, it seems as if they’ve always known each other, and have been lifelong friends. In narrative terms, it doesn’t follow the traditions of linear storytelling, but it makes them feel spiritually tethered.

These characters are all outsiders, one way or another. Many of them are queer and gender non-conforming (one of the Sri Lankan characters, Meera, is a trans woman), and though they speak different languages, including Spanish and Mandarin, they seem to intrinsically understand each other’s dialogue, which appears subtitled in different colors for each of their dialects. Their interactions begin, at first, in the form of pre-ordained instructions, quests and riddles—as if they’re living out a large-scale video game—but they soon grow more intimate as they begin exchanging stories and personal anecdotes.

All the while, the way the camera captures them feels just a little off-kilter. We catch a glimpse of Williams in a passing reflection or two, in the occasional car window passing by, which reveals hints of a massive camera rig he wears overhead. The Human Surge 3 ensures a Brechtian awareness of its storytelling technology at all times—not to mention, the human element controlling that technology—but it still plays out like a bewildering magic trick. At times, it’s hard not to wonder where the hell Williams himself could be positioned in order to capture some of these images, like a face to face conversation that he pans between while supposedly standing in the middle of its participants, capturing every element of the environment including the street between them. Has he slipped through some crack in space and time? Has his camera become invisible and omnipotent? It’s more likely that he directed his subjects to ignore him while staring right at him, but the result is no less mesmerizing given the novelty of the images themselves. It's like watching a coming-of-age drama play out on Google Street View.

It's like watching a coming-of-age drama play out on Google Street View.

What we see for most of the film is semi-familiar in shape and aspect ratio: an image stretched and curved in panoramic ways (bordering on fisheye and turning vertical trees into curved and patterned canopies overhead), but it holds back on revealing the full extent of its experiment until its final scenes, toward the end of its two-hour runtime. Williams edited much of this footage using a VR headset, allowing him to see all around him, and affording him the chance to select which segments of this 360-degree reality to present in a given moment. What we see for the most part is closer to human peripheral vision (about a 170-degree field of view) compressed onto a two-dimensional screen, but the nature of the camera imbues this image with strange and ghostly digital artifacts. The way a panoramic photo on your smartphone stitches together multiple images side by side, so too does the camera in The Human Surge 3. And so, each time Williams moves to follow his characters through space, these glitches become more apparent, creating pixelations that feel like fissures in reality, as if the boundaries between people were beginning to blur.

Some scenes bear a striking similarity to Cinerama, an ultra-widescreen film process that was briefly popular in the 1960s (and now exists as a novelty showcase), which captured scenes on three 35mm cameras side by side, and projected these images on a curved screen to create a 145-degree field of view. The results were expansive, but the vertical boundaries between the three images were always visible. This isn’t necessarily the case with The Human Surge 3; given the way Williams moves through three-dimensional space, the borders between his images seem to constantly appear and disappear. After a while, noticing them, or trying to spot them, becomes an active part of the viewing experience, as if we’re searching for these unspoken, phantasmagorical glitches in reality that simultaneously separate the characters, and bring them together across vast distances. Soon, even facial distortions begin to seem beautiful, because they’re applied to smiling characters who we’ve slowly gotten to know.

As the film weaves between its three locations—all poor regions in the Global South—it can be hard to tell exactly where we are at a given time, until a street sign appears in a local language. Until then, their street-side shops and auto rickshaws speak to a commonality of cultural experience separated by thousands of miles, a distance Williams bridges with his distortive narrative. At times, it feels like the world itself is tipping on its axis in unprecedented ways, if only because of the way he shoots bodies of water. Their surfaces form optical illusions of simultaneous convexity and concavity as the characters float and frolic. You’re never quite sure what you’re seeing, but it feels poetic, and comforting.

Much of the visuals and style in "The Human Surge 3" is inspired by video games.

Courtesy of Rediance

The first Human Surge features an intriguing denouement late into its runtime, where it trades in its inexpensive appearance for a brief, close-up detour into an ant colony, after which the human world begins to take on new hues and dimensions. The Human Surge 3 features a similarly noticeable visual breaking point, from which moment on the frame takes on an especially hypnotic quality. Williams, having built up to this shift by preparing us to interpret cinematic distortions, reveals the full extent of his vision. The way Picasso’s cubism sought to depict three dimensions on a two-dimensional plane, Williams compresses a 360-degree field of view onto a movie screen—but with the help of motion and time, his art pushes the limits of sight a step further, revealing a fourth dimension we aren’t used to perceiving, as he contorts his images akin to light being bent around a Black Hole.

All the while, Williams remains transfixed on his characters and their newfound, cross-linguistic camaraderie, as they wander a lush, dreamlike landscape as if it were an epic journey across time and space. Through his use of language and lenses, he imbues simple communication with a sense of enormousness on par with traversing galaxies, making the very act of human connection across cultures more overwhelming, and more spiritually vital, than it has ever felt on screen.

The Human Surge 3 was reviewed out of the Toronto International Film Festival.

Published on September 20, 2023

Words by Siddhant Adlakha

Siddhant Adlakha is a critic and filmmaker from Mumbai, though he now lives in New York City. They're more similar than you'd think. Find him at @SiddhantAdlakha on Twitter