Wednesday 17 September 2014

Errors of the Human Body (2012)

Director: Eron Sheean
Stars: Michael Eklund, Karoline Herfurth, Tómas Lemarquis and Rik Mayall
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.
This multinational science fiction thriller, shot in Germany by an Australian with a Canadian playing the lead and prominent supporting roles for German, Icelandic, British and Japanese actors, takes a worthy new approach to its genre and gets a lot right. Like all the best science fiction, it tells a quintessentially human story within its scientific framework, this one centered around communication, which here goes a lot further than merely the ability of people to talk to each other. The film's director, Eron Sheean, within a Q&A during the picture's US première at Austin's Fantastic Fest in 2012, explained that it was 'about a breakdown in communication, both on the surface in the characters and internally with the cells.' If our innate ability to communicate is what moves us forward as individuals and as a race, the lead character, Dr Geoff Burton, quickly sets the stage to move in the opposite direction as he's socially broken, unable to talk to his ex-wife, his ex-mistress turned new co-worker and pretty much anyone else.

The good news is that Burton is played by Michael Eklund, who turns in a stunning performance one year before The Call but two after his role in Xavier Gans's The Divide, surely cast here because Sheean wrote and produced that picture though it's this one which promptly became his demo reel. Initially he's a little reminiscent of Aaron Hotchner in Criminal Minds in the way that he's clearly very bright and capable but also very insular, but as the script lets loose on him with brutal irony, he loses that clinical air. As the plot escalates, Eklund's acting escalates with it so that his character falls apart with starkly believable effect. Before we get to that point, of course, we're supposed to see his potential as both that future nightmare waiting to happen and as the new research scientist at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, Germany. He was invited here by its head, Samuel Mead, in the form of a very serious Rik Mayall, looking more like a politician here than he ever did as Alan B'stard, MP.

Burton has moved to Dresden for two reasons. One is that he's a very talented scientist, notable for work at the University of Massachusetts on the early detection of embryonic abnormalities. Originally he was a bacterial biochemist, but was drawn to genetics because of his son, who suffered and died at the age of a single week from a rare genetic mutation that now bears his name, Burton's Syndrome. The other is that his work had become entangled in what Mead describes as a 'politicised environment' back in the States, where he couldn't be fired outright but could have his funding progressively restricted until he quit of his own accord. He'll have more freedom here to pursue his work, though he's quick to explain to audiences that his pre-screening of embryos does not mean that he's practising eugenics. This is Germany, after all. Of course, this is a movie so there are plot points waiting for him in Dresden too, less believable but more cinematic in their ability to spin a yarn around Burton and his work.
The one he knows about is Rebekka Fiedler, his former intern and mistress, presumably a strong reason why he's no longer married to his wife, who is now pregnant by her new man. What he doesn't know yet is exactly what Fiedler has been doing in her work to regenerate limbs or what a previous partner, Jarek Novak, has spun that work into in a secret lab in the bowels of the institute. Naturally, he'll find out soon enough, given that the reason Mead reached out to him in the first place is the condition of her research. She's been achieving wonders with axolotls, regenerating limbs at rapid speed, but she's been unable to transfer that success over to mice, which are Novak's specialty. Of course, it's not rocket science to see where this is going to take us, but it unfolds against the backdrop of two key ideas, both outlined during Burton's first lunch at the institute. The first comes from an odd but endearing duck called Chiba, while the second comes from Novak himself, keen to the degree of fanatical.

Chiba reconstructs the skeletons of the fish he eats in the cafeteria, because he likes to see big pictures. Too many of us talk about food but not how it got to us, naturally echoing how many of us talk about the cures that medical science can provide but not the research it takes to perfect them. In other words, the end does not justify the means, even if we shroud the means in mystery and pretend that the end was always the beginning. Novak plays up how he's the same as Burton, because of 'taking risks, whatever it takes, new brave world.' His personal dream is to harness the distribution power of mosquitos to spread vaccines to the populace rather than disease. Rather than eradicating the problem, why not use science to transform it into the solution? It's an enticing concept, but while Chiba feels grounded but interesting, Novak, with his stereotypically sinister bald head and expressive eyes, feels overly eager and freakish. I like the combination of these two ideas, which ground the film neatly.

There are other strong aspects to the film. The pace is slow but measured, somewhat like Burton himself and the work he does. I've read that Errors of the Human Body is unparalleled in the accuracy with which it depicts 'the look and feel of a high level research lab', to quote an IMDb review. Of course, much of this is due to Sheean's access to the real Max Planck Institute as an artist in residency. He developed the film over six years at the institute and was gleefully happy when they agreed to let him shoot it there. This is why the colours are so interesting, very clinical in tone. We might expect gleaming white everything from generations of hospital shows on television, but these shades are more blue and green. Much of the look is the colour of brushed steel with a little bit of light against it. However, that accuracy surely owes some of its success to the pace, which refuses to leap from breakthrough to breakthrough like levels in a game and unfolds with the patience of clinical testing in which every negative result is important as well.
The varied cast help to ground this too. Just because this is a German institute doesn't mean that each of the scientists working there have to be German. Eklund is Canadian, but his odd accent is appropriately a hard one to place, given that Burton presumably moves wherever the work takes him. Karoline Herfurth is German, though she's fluent in the English language and starred in English language productions before this, such as Tom Tykwer's Perfume: The Story of a Murderer and the Kate Winslet movie, The Reader. It's somewhat telling that Herfurth buries Rebekka so deeply in her work that we don't think of her outside it, even though she once again hooks up with Burton in Dresden. By comparison, Tómas Lemarquis screams for attention as Novak, not only because he escalates him up the fanatic scale, but because he's cast so stereotypically. This Icelandic actor without a hair on his head is the very image of science unbound, but he deserves praise for his acting rather than just what he looks like.

The negative side begins with the convenience. Even if I can admire the irony that pervades later scenes and a blistering realisation of the past that comes along with it, I have to acknowledge that it only works because of a stacked set of plot conveniences that are too contrived to buy into. The scientific grounding of the film, which extends so far as a useful PDF download, is seriously stretched by the later scenes that are grounded by their cinematic impact rather than their science. Of course, many will prefer the thrills of the third act to the slower build which aims for coldness, clinicality and distance rather than eye candy. I recently revisited The Astronaut's Wife, a picture which ultimately fails because it achieves the sense of alien detachment that it aims for and so detaches the audience as well. Sheean keeps us more engaged, but he doesn't seem sure who we are. This doesn't work as a horror movie, as horrific as a few moments are, and it doesn't offer the tension of a thriller. Even as sci-fi, it's more sci than fi, then more fi than sci.

In the end, it's really a drama, albeit one that's so drenched in science that it ought to shimmer with dry ice like the experiments in the Planck Institute labs. The technical details gradually reveal themselves to be background, while the themes take over, and most prominent among them is the guilt that's haunted Burton since the death of his son. Perhaps he was a great scientist before that, but we can only presume that it led to his adultery, his divorce, his banishment from American science and the errors he makes in this film both as a scientist and a human being. The title serves double duty, highlighting the mutations that drive his work but also its lead character with all the little obsessions that chip away at his genius. It ends up as a character study, brilliantly portrayed by Michael Eklund. The science that drove the film's creation simply can't keep up with him, which is why it eventually disappoints as a story but never as a performance. Sheean showed promise here, but Eklund's career should skyrocket.

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