As the end credits of The Beta Test (co-written/directed/co-starring Jim Cummings and produced by Vanishing Angle) rolled, my immediate thought was to rewatch it as the final film in a triple feature. David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001), Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2014), and Jim Cummings’s The Beta Test (2021).
Like Lynch’s film, The Beta Test explores the personal and interpersonal damage that can result from working in the Hollywood industry. Cummings and company take audiences into the unhinging horrors of production dynamics and syncs these with the devastating ideologies that films cement as they circulate.
Like Ex Machina, Cummings’s newest film explores the rapidly-rising perils of algorithmic cultures. What’s amazing about The Beta Test is how it juxtaposes these two horrors. First, there’s a complex approach to Big Data as it plays a role in reshaping the film industry and all who work in it. Add to that the more familiar concern over what Big Data reveals to us about ourselves. Through this thematic montage, The Beta Test delivers a provocation that transcends simple technophobia. Instead, the data scraping plot points are painful revelations of the hidden yet deep-seated fantasies that the characters, and we as culture consumers, possess and are possessed by.
Its keen sense of humor sets The Beta Test apart and is key to why I’d make it the final flavor of this triple feature. If you like the awkwardly hilarious scenes in Mulholland Drive, you’ll likely savor the escalated use of dangerous comedy in The Beta Test. While the humor in Lynch’s masterpiece is often aside from the film’s protagonist(s), Cummings constitutes the comedy squarely in the main character, Jordan, played by the co-writer/director himself. Jordan frequently halts and hesitates in the film, as if noticing a whole other reality adjacent to the one in which he relentlessly rehearses industry mantras: “I’m so excited; we’re so excited; let’s keep talking.” Like Betty/Diane in Mulholland Drive, Jordan is terrified by who he is inside Hollywood and the depth of the grip that film-driven misogyny holds, and the humor is crafted to enhance rather than minimize this horror. A double-date dinner scene early in the film exemplifies this deliciously, and I’ll say no more here to spoil your appetite for it.
The Beta Test opens with a mini master class in thriller tension. Gender power asymmetry structures the sequence. The sharp editing complements dialogue, in Swedish, that tries to avoid violence by keeping gently vague to draw you like a tractor beam to the edge of your seat. Without spoiling what happens, I’ll just say the sequence is akin to the parable at the start of the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man (2009) in establishing tone, theme, and form.
Within the main plot, The Beta Test engages the influence Chinese investments and interests exert in Hollywood. From the subtle appearances of soy-based snack drinks in Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014) to the sometimes seemingly shoehorned inclusion of Chinese actors in The Meg (2018) and The Martian (2014), signals of Chinese influence in Hollywood continue to increase. What’s cool about The Beta Test is how its China elements are pulled into a constellation of film-driven objectification of people. Absent the Sinophobia, these pieces contribute to the film’s sensibility that the dark parts of profit-driven entertainment transcend national and other borders.
When meeting with a high-powered Chinese money person, Jordan opens with the line, “Ni hao the hell are you?” Cummings’s character is comedically distracted in the moment, and so he utters a base objectification. The gesture is repaid scenes later at a party when Raymond Lee, the character Jordan insulted, makes a sexually-inappropriate contact. The logic of script flipping is in play, yet the dynamic between these characters is much more than that. They are so entangled with the horrific ideology that their story points towards large structures of sexism and racism rather than rotten individuals.
Sex scenes in The Beta Test are so weird. An anonymous afternoon affair with blindfolds is intercut with conference room team talks that inveigle against the WGA and labor organization. Desire and exploitation twist and grapple just as the bodies on screen in the upscale hotel room do. Another sex scene in a lovely mountainscape outside the city mixes awkwardness with hostility. It feels like we’re watching people desperate to feel yet aware that each physical gesture originates in something they’ve seen on a screen rather than an impulse sparked by a love for the other.
To business meetings and sexual encounters, the film adds a thriller-mode confrontation with the force behind the titular Test. Data footprints, scrapings, and entrepreneurship represent a new factor in the culture that Hollywood helps conjure and circulate. Interestingly, The Beta Test treats the rise of algorithmic culture as more than a mere addition to or intrusion into Hollywood’s cultural production. Big Data catalyzes a chemical change to entertainment, bending film trends to what we want, from an abstracted point of view, and, loopily, bending what we want.
If that sounds complicated, it’s because The Beta Test is a sophisticated film. Cummings infuses it with halts, revelations, and inertias. Watch this film attentively and you feel the fundamental terror of what it’s like to try exfoliating the toxic accretions of culture. The Beta Test documents how almost impossible it can be to love and care for others in a world constructed so that livelihoods hinge on retweeting misogyny, profit margins, and the composites of data-scraped desires shaped by the former factors.
The last scene of the film opens a disturbing place for such analytical work to begin as we take The Beta Test alone and together.