Movie characters should know by now not to invent world-changing devices in their home workshops, because it’s only going to lead to them being chased by nefarious government or corporate agents. That’s exactly what happens to Ben Boyles (Hunter Doohan) in the scrappy low-budget sci-fi movie Soundwave, which makes the most of its simple premise and limited resources. Ben works at one of those businesses that can only find a customer base in the movies, a store specializing in the repair of old radios. While he fixes vintage equipment for aging customers, he’s also developed a machine that can pick up sound waves from the past, thanks to some pseudo-scientific jargon about sound never truly dissipating.
In the grand tradition of low-budget genre movies, the machine is just a bunch of dials stuck together and what looks like a repurposed smart phone, but it’s convincing enough, and the idea offers plenty of possibilities for writer-director Dylan K. Narang to explore. Ben has been surreptitiously using the machine to help a local police detective solve crimes, even though Ben’s boss/mentor Antonio (Mike Beaver) doesn’t approve. What Ben really wants is to be able to listen to what happened on the day his dad mysteriously disappeared, but without the info on the specific day and time, those sounds are lost in the ether.
Detective Macy (Vince Nappo), on the other hand, just wants to get rich, so he introduces Ben to the obviously sinister operator who just goes by “John” (Paul Tassone). John offers plenty of money if he can get his hands on Ben’s invention, but Ben refuses to sell, so he ends up on the run from various henchmen trying to steal the machine and eliminate him. Still, Ben has time for a bit of romance with local convenience-store clerk Katie (Katie Owsley), whom he’s been creepily spying on with his ability to hear all of her private conversations (including sessions with her therapist).
To his credit, Narang acknowledges the creepiness of Ben’s actions, although Katie forgives him a little too easily, especially since he allows her to hear the final performance her singer mom gave before she passed away. The movie is best when it looks into the unsettling implications of Ben’s technology, both for the seemingly unassuming Ben and for the more overtly dangerous forces that are after him. Narang stages some exciting chase scenes through the streets of Los Angeles, and he uses a simple method (slowing the picture down to a series of comic book-style still images) to illustrate the effect of using the machine to listen in on other conversations.
The science may be wonky, but the characters are grounded, and the performances are solid, without the kind of overacting that can be common in indie genre movies (if anything, Doohan underacts as the improbably serene Ben). Tassone gives the villain just the right amount of sneering condescension to be threatening, and Doohan and Owsley share a few tender moments in the minimally developed love story.
Some major plot threads remain unresolved by the end, but the closing stinger, of course, teases a potential sequel. With his machinery strapped to his chest, his villains and motivations established and his origin story out of the way, Ben is basically a superhero (Soundwave is even a perfect code name for him), and the movie is a promising introduction to his further adventures.