© HBO

Steven Soderbergh’s Newest Project? There’s an App for That.

Mosaic isn’t great on a smartphone or on HBO.

Since filming the difficult and ambitious Che in 2008, Steven Soderbergh has eschewed outwardly “serious” movies to make a prolific number of substantive larks. He’s directed two deeply fun movies about late capitalism and the charms of Channing Tatum, a disaster movie, a TV biopic, an action experiment starring an MMA fighter, and a gorgeously shot procedural, among many other projects, while also producing other people’s projects, filming a movie he had no intention of releasing, shooting movies other people were directingre-editing classics, and retiring and unretiring. As my colleague Dan Kois observed after watching all of his films, Soderbergh is a director who doesn’t like to repeat himself. Every project is a new challenge, an experiment in technique and style, directing with one arm tied behind his back.

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Enter HBO’s Mosaic, a technical exercise posing as a murder mystery that premieres Monday on HBO, but has been available as an app for smartphones and AppleTV since mid-December. People already watch TV on their phones. Why not make a show that’s designed for that? This is an intriguing idea, perhaps particularly so for the format-agnostic Soderbergh. But Soderbergh already skews to the cold and antiseptic, and here he seems (not for the first time) to be tickled by a technical challenge but bored by his characters. Mosaic is a string of conversations unfolding in hotel rooms and homes that look like hotel rooms, amid sunshine and snow, among people hellbent on redressing injustice with limited facial expressions. It is about as heatless and heartless as a murder story could be—and there’s no overcoming that on a phone or on a television.

But for one memorable 20-minute sequence at the very end of the story, the app and the TV versions contain basically the same footage, parceled out differently. In both, Sharon Stone stars as Olivia Lake, a famous children’s book author who lives in the posh, snowy enclave of Summit, Utah. She falls in love with an intense younger con man named Eric Neill (Frederick Weller) and soon thereafter disappears. Eric is jailed for her murder. Four years later, his sister Petra (Jennifer Ferrin), sets out to prove his innocence. With the help of Nate (Devin Ratray), the chief of police, they circle Olivia’s former boarder and one-time crush object Joel (Garrett Hedlund). All of this is filmed impeccably (not that a phone screen is the best way to see it) and icily, with barely any modulation in mood. It’s like the artfully chosen electronic music playing at a relatively hip hotel bar, crisp, clear, devoid of any messy human entanglement, chic, and forgettable.

Steven Soderbergh’s Mosaic has an app that allows users to choose their path through the story.

In the TV version, audiences begin in medias res, with Nate explaining to Joel how guilty he looks, before jumping back four years earlier to Joel’s first meeting with Olivia, when she orders a “muscular” drink and applauds herself for not ordering a “stiff” one. (Stone has been dropped in from another, more virile planet: I hope she does more TV.) In the app, which is laid out like a modified Choose Your Own Adventure game, viewers begin with Olivia and Eric’s first meeting and are then prompted to pick from two options, and so on through the story. I backtracked early and often, clicking back to the installments I had missed, long before I reached the ending. (My colleague Inkoo Kang followed a storyline, and she didn’t much like watching that way either.) The real virtue of seeing it on a phone is that the phone mandates a certain degree of focus: You can’t watch it while also messing around on your phone, and I know because I tried.

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More than the TV show, Mosaic’s app version accentuates the question of point of view, starting from Eric and Olivia’s POV before splitting off into Joel’s, into Nate’s, and eventually into Petra’s. But the show, too, sloughs off characters, forcing us to spend maximum time with Petra, who is calm, controlled, and regularly complimented for being intense and impressive, which is the only way I knew she was supposed to be. Throughout, Ferrin and Hedlund seem like very expensive furniture: handsome, sturdy, sitting there.

Stone, Ratray, and Paul Reubens, who plays Olivia’s oldest and dearest gay friend JC, incorporate laughter and personality into their performances. (Weller, who in the second half of the show grows a beard and delivers every single line in a wide-eyed whisper-scream, is pretty captivating too, though maybe not in the manner he intended.) They don’t seem entirely like real people, but they are at least entertaining fake ones, dropped in from a snarlier, sloppier show that cares more about human feeling than impeccable framing. Stone’s performance is lively enough that I cared who killed Olivia (the answer is both clever and predictable), but the reveal is, like everything else, oddly dispassionate and strangely placid. In this way, at least, Mosaic is a nice distraction from everything else on your phone.