Saturday 28 December 2013

Quantum (2012)

Director: Joseph Carlin
Stars: Jeffrey R Ayars, Frank Halbiger and Mike Sokolowski
This film was an official selection at the 9th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
A lot of people avoid science fiction films, especially Russian ones or short ones, because of a general assumption that they'll be called upon to think, as if that would be a bad thing. It does mean that they miss out on a lot of great movies but it also means that they safely avoid what they hate and fear: the possibility that an idea might take root in their head and throw their safe, boring lives out of whack. It could be said that Quantum, a short film from writer/director Joseph Carlin and Transfixion Films, is the epitome of what they fear, as it's all about taking an idea, releasing it into your skull at high speed and letting it ricochet around until you drive yourself batty. Its story is effectively torture for physicists, the sort who can paint themselves into a corner, all the while meditating upon what a corner really is and whether it still exists after they close their eyes. It's based, of course, on the infamous experiment of Schrödinger's cat, but with a number of enhancements to make it cinematically viable.

For a while it's tedious, as we just follow a man on a long walk into a library, the glitchy soundtrack and odd angles not adding much to proceedings. We just want to know why a man, before we're even given opening credits, placed a gun to his chin. The walker, Tyler by name, holds the key because everything ties to a study he wants to perform. He tells Robert that he aims to 'push the limits of quantum theory, human understanding' and Brandon that 'by the time we're done, we'll have lifted the veil of reality as we know it.' It's an odd experiment, as we expect from his voice which is half soporific college lecturer and half persuasive used car salesman. That voice is the principal reason why we buy into some of what follows, because the logic is dubious, even though it's rivetting. In most films, the quick bout of Russian roulette that we're treated to would be the drama that underpins the story, but this is not most films. In this one, it's just the beginning, as the participants then argue about what the result really means.
Inevitably, the more we think about this one, the more it falls apart on us. I'm a realist: If I shoot myself in the head and survive, then I'm alive. However, because this story is is inextricably rooted in quantum theory and the characters are students of the subject, we can't help but watch from their perspective. In other words, if Brandon shoots himself in the head and survives, how can he know whether he's alive or dead? How can Robert prove the outcome in numbers written on the white walls of the box like room in which the study took place? Here's where the true value lies, as a clear vision of what most of us tend to see in quantum mechanics: men in white shirts torturing themselves over whether black is white or vice versa. All three of the actors are believable in this, even though they're completely different otherwise: Jeffrey Ayars is an infuriatingly calm Tyler, Frank Halbiger a quintessential nerdy genius as Robert and Michael Sokolowski a less disciplined wildcard as Brandon. The film relies on them all and they deliver.

Mostly, of course, it relies on the story, which is a clever little bugger that's careful to make itself about the characters' interpretation of quantum theory rather than about quantum theory itself. That way we stay sane while they don't and we follow proceedings clearly even without a grounding in the subject. After all, quantum theory tends to trump cryptography as the archetypal example of the science most fundamentally inaccessible to the layman. At least we know cryptography works, even if we haven't a clue how. This approach is why Carlin could get away with such a minimal set; most of the film unfolds in a closed room with white walls and almost no props because everything is conjured out of words. The budget ran around a thousand dollars, most of which went into building that room. The beauty of a film that revolves around a cryptic thought experiment is that it keeps us thinking and it's the easiest thing in the world to think round in circles. I bet the three of them are still in that room doing just that.

Quantum can be watched for free at Vimeo.

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