A Soderbergh Mystery, and an App

Posted December 16, 2017 6:07 p.m. EST

Last year, “O.J.: Made in America,” an ESPN series that was also screened in theaters, won the Oscar for best documentary. High-profile films including “Okja” were released simultaneously in theaters and on Netflix. Several film critics have placed Showtime’s “Twin Peaks: The Return” on their best-of-2017 lists.

All of it raises the question: What the hell is TV anymore?

“Mosaic,” the latest — work? — from director Steven Soderbergh, will not settle that. But it complicates the issue in some interesting ways.

It is definitely not a movie. Eventually it will be TV, as a six-episode HBO miniseries, airing the week of Jan. 22. But right now, it’s a smartphone app, available for iOS and Android download: over seven hours of video chunks organized into a web, through which you pick your way to the end.

The story, in short: Olivia Lake (Sharon Stone), a famous children’s author, goes missing from her Utah mountain home, and her lover, Eric (Frederick Weller) is jailed for her murder. Four years later, Eric’s sister, Petra (Jennifer Ferrin), shows up to try to clear Eric’s name, her amateur investigation drawing in Joel (Garrett Hedlund), Olivia’s former boarder, and Nate (Devin Ratray), a local cop who worked the original case.

As a mystery, “Mosaic,” directed by Soderbergh and written by Ed Solomon, is sleek-looking but sluggish, burdened by flat characters. But as an investigation of what stories are and how we assemble them in our minds, the app is fascinating, if not ultimately successful.

It would be a mistake to call “Mosaic” a choose-your-own-adventure. Instead, you choose a path — which parts of the story you see and from whose point of view. You have to watch one segment before you unlock new alternatives. You’re advancing along a flowchart, illustrated by a “map” built in to the app. You can go back, but you can’t skip forward.

So what’s the correct way to watch? Should you keep advancing, accepting that there are portions of the story you will never see? That was my instinct: After the beginning, I mostly followed Petra as she delved into her brother’s past.

But when I arrived at the conclusion (or a conclusion) a message told me: “You’ve reached the end of the path, but not the end of the story. Look again.” Back to work, pal.

From there, the interactivity consisted of doubling back to see which unexplored pockets make the story fuller — and honestly, make it better. I prefer that to be the artist’s job. I felt, at times, as if Soderbergh had dumped a bunch of reels of film on my desk and said: “Here. You edit it.” (His own cut for HBO will run about five hours.)

Going back, I saw that the route I randomly chose largely excised Olivia. She was more of a presence in the other throughlines, but they followed a plot that I had mostly watched unfold and couldn’t unsee.

The effect was like rereading a novel I had skimmed. Over and over, I saw multiple takes of the same scenes. I met a few new characters; some previously puzzling points made more sense. I was getting more information. But I wasn’t getting more invested.

Maybe the cold, flat-affect execution of this particular tale kept me from engaging with the characters. But maybe we’re wired to receive linear stories — this and this and this and done — for a reason.

The other novelty in “Mosaic” is that every so often a “discovery” — a video clip, a voicemail, a PDF image — pops up in the timeline to add context or further information. You can read a news story that’s been mentioned or watch a past conversation between characters. Sometimes a “discovery” adds key information, other times just texture. But it always appears smack in the midst of a scene, which you have to pause in order to open the discovery and find out what it is. If you’ve always thought TV would be better with footnotes, I suppose this is for you.

“Mosaic” is not a game, but the experience is gameified. The discoveries are like cut-scenes from an old-school CD-ROM, and navigating the narrative through the map felt a little like playing one of those hypnotic smartphone games that divides the play into chapters.

I was surprised how closely focused the app kept me. I wasn’t tempted to surf Twitter on my iPhone when I was already watching something on my iPhone. And Soderbergh seems to have thoughtfully filmed “Mosaic” with an eye toward how it will play on a tiny screen, framing his characters with plenty of tight shots.

But the constant expectation of interaction — waiting for a “discovery” to pop up, for a decision to present itself — made me feel alert more than immersed. There was a constant low-grade tension of waiting for the call of duty. For all that, I’m glad that Soderbergh tried it. Even a misfired experiment can advance the form. In 2003, the director took a flyer on HBO’s “K Street,” a semi-improv political satire shot within days of its air date. It was better in concept than execution, but its mockumentary style has since become familiar on TV.

And as an R&D project, there’s hardware in “Mosaic” that I could imagine stripped out and applied to the machinery of other fiction.

The branching narrative, for instance, could be used to haunting effect in a series like Showtime’s “The Affair,” in which the same events play out differently when seen from different characters’ points of view. I can only imagine what obsessive use the makers of “Lost” would have put the discovery tool to.

At one point, “Mosaic” nods at its own gimmicky nature. The children’s book that made Olivia famous had a twist, too: Read it front to back and it’s the story of a hunter chasing a scary bear, but flip the book over and it’s the story of a bear defending itself from a scary hunter.

Neat concept, right? So is “Mosaic.” It’s just waiting for the right story.

‘Mosaic’ is available as an app for iOS and Android.