'Users' is a fascinating meditation on life and parenting in the digital age

It's a poetic followup to "Koyaanisqatsi."

Natalia Almada

One of the earliest  images in Natalia Almada's virtuoso documentary Users is of an infant, tightly wrapped and strapped to a Snoo smart crib, robotically being rocked to sleep to the sound of manufactured white noise. By recreating many of the sensations of being in the womb, the Snoo has become a popular gadget for new parents who need help tucking their little ones in. In many ways, it's the pinnacle of a smart gadget: Developed by Dr. Harvey Karp, with product design by the renowned Yves Behar, the Snoo solves a problem that parents have faced for millennia. But what do we lose if a robot can automatically soothe a crying baby, effectively replacing a nurturing parent. What's the cost of modernity?

Users Sundance documentary
Natalia Almada

That's the question at the heart of Users, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this week. Like a follow-up to the legendary "Qatsi" trilogy, which kicked off with Koyanasqaatsi, Users relies on arresting images to make viewers confront the increasing discord between the natural and the technological world. Right before we see that crying child, Almada (in a somewhat robotic voiceover that's later explained) opens the film with a discussion of how humans used to deal with having children.

"Babies births couldn't be scheduled, they came unexpectedly," she says. "Mothers had to carry the child within them for almost a year, and then painfully push them out. When that didn't work, doctors would surgically remove them. You had to feed the baby from your own body, and had to soothe the child to sleep."

Now, your smart crib can automatically detect when your child is crying and soothe them on its own. Watching the Snoo in action, I was reminded of when I tested it out with my daughter. At the time, I was struck by how much faith I was putting in a machine. It felt as if I was handing my newborn over to our new god -- technology. My daughter never found the Snoo soothing, so we gave up on it after a few weeks. But for Almada, and plenty of other parents, it's a miracle: "It was tireless, and it did it right every time. It was the perfect mother. And she was everywhere."

More a tone poem than a traditional narrative documentary, Users doesn't have many answers. Instead, Almada is more interested in heightening our awareness of modern life. She presents images of a raging ocean, a reminder of where we all came from. Not long afterwards, we see a water treatment plant, which cleans sewage so we can have potable water. Later, we see a mother breastfeeding her child -- one of the most natural and pure acts humans are capable of, but one that's still made possible by the benefits of modern medicine and sanitation.

As a parent myself, it’s heartening to see more art reflecting my concerns about how my child is being influenced by tech. “She's in the satellites orbiting around us in space. In the web of fiber optic cables wrapping around the earth. Everywhere, but out of sight,” Almada says early on in the film, describing her anxiety over the technological “mother” overseeing her children's lives. “She and I are in a battle over my children’s affection. Will they love her more, will they love her perfection more than my imperfection?”

Users Sundance documentary

Users also draws the obvious connection between our reliance on technology and fossil fuels, and the resulting climate change. The film features stunning footage from recent wildfires around the San Francisco Bay Area, which is made all the more immersive by rich and detailed sound design. At one point, we see Almada and her crew driving down a road that's quickly being engulfed by flames, and it feels as if we're sitting beside her.

"I was thinking a lot about how, it [the wildfire] was kind of this fight between nature and technology, in a way, and nobody won," Almada said in an interview for the Engadget Podcast. "Nature didn't really win. It was more powerful and it destroyed people's homes and everything. And yet, we have all this amazing technology, and we couldn't prevent that from happening."

Thanks to funding from Dolby, Almada was able to master the film in Dolby Vision HDR and Atmos surround sound. Neither technology was accessible through Sundance's online platform, but, to be fair, I've yet to see any virtual film festival offer anything more than standard HD playback. Still, I could tell that Almada and her partner Dave Cerf, the film's sound designer and composer, spent more attention to the aural aspects of Users than most documentaries.

Users Sundance documentary

The wide dynamic range of the film’s soundscape is sometimes jarring, like when the camera pans down from the hum of power lines to a loud semi truck roaring right in front of it, but it serves to make User’s images all the more impactful. Almada says the final mix will be able to take full advantage of Atmos’s potential. The movie’s score was performed by the renowned Kronos Quarter in a studio with 19 microphones, which allowed Almada and Cerf to pinpoint exactly where they want certain sounds to appear, like the breath of a performer as they blow into a flute-like instrument.

Since it was mostly produced before the COVID-19 pandemic, Users doesn’t comment on how the past year has changed the way we live. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Almada decides to follow up with similar films, as our response to the coronavirus is also deeply rooted in technology. She also has plenty of ideas she wasn’t able to film, like footage inside of a Google data center. It’s not hard to imagine Users becoming its own series like the Qatsi films.