What Is an Aseptic White Room Thriller?

Julian Richings in Cube

 

The simple answer to the question “what is an aseptic white room thriller” (AWRT) is Cube, Vincenzo Natali’s cult Canadian sci-fi movie from 1997. More abstractly, it’s a film that takes place on a single set, usually white though not necessarily. Lighting will be clean, clinical, fairly devoid of shadow. Soundtrack music will be scarce or absent. As for sound design, a background hum of air-conditioning is standard. Clanking, the whooshing of doors, “noises off”.

It’s the plot that is most definitive. In the AWRT no one really knows what’s going on. Typically the film opens with the characters who don’t know each other waking up somewhere far from home, to find that off-screen somewhere, in the bowels of the spaceship they’re on, or in a dark corner of the warehouse they’re in, something is out to get them.

Banding together is the sensible option and it’s usually the person who is most vocally against this course of action who gets it (whatever “it” is) first.

Alien has elements of the Aseptic White Room Thriller, though in the purest manifestation of the form we never get to see the antagonist, the creature. Because the creature is, in effect, other people. And if that’s tickling a memory of Jean-Paul Sartre’s “hell is other people”, then you’ve arrived at the modern source of all Aseptic White Room Thrillers, Sartre’s Huis Clos, a vision of hell in which three people are punished by being locked up with each other for eternity, where they must struggle not to become an object of someone else’s consciousness, the great existential burden.

Put another way, Sartre was a grumpy bugger who didn’t get on with other people.

 

Some examples of the Aseptic White Room Thriller:

 

Cube (1997, dir: Vincenzo Natali)

Seven people of various classes and backgrounds wake up in a hi-tech cube consisting of white room off white room. Periodically reconfiguring itself to lethal effect, the cube forces the initially unco-operative bunch into “pull together or die” survival mode.

Before checking out Cube, it is worth being aware that the acting is very ropy, the script is possibly even worse. But the simplicity of its premise, the starkness of its judgment, the implacability of whatever it is that’s doing whatever it is that it’s doing makes for a highly flavoured, and highly influential piece of sci-fi.

Cube – at Amazon

 

Moon (2009, dir: Duncan Jones)

Moon looks to me as if Duncan Jones, son of David Bowie, was halfway through watching the George Clooney version of Solaris and thought “nah, I could do better than that.” And that’s what he’s done with this brilliantly told story of the lone astronaut (Sam Rockwell) up on the moon who discovers he’s not alone at all.

Kubrick’s 2001 provides some of the look, and the inspiration for the faintly mocking computer, voiced here by Kevin Spacey. And Alien provides the idea of the human very much the subordinate to the company’s systems.

All this wrapped up in a story that like Russian dolls within dolls, or turtles standing on the backs of turtles, goes down and down and down towards infinity.

Moon – at Amazon

 

Antiviral (2012, dir: Brandon Cronenberg)

Brandon, son of David, Cronenberg updates dad’s “body horror” shockers with the story of a lab rat who steals a bit of DNA from the facility where he works. The DNA is from someone rich and famous and the lab where he works sells, among other things, cold sores of the rich and famous. Because in Brandon Cronenberg’s world the great unwashed will do anything to get close to a celebrity, including infecting themselves with their herpes.

Antiviral is a grungy satire rather than a philosophical examination of the friability of the individual, though the sense of isolation, the clinical setting and Cronenberg’s expert fostering of a sense of dread all bathe the movie in the chill glow of the Aseptic White Room Thriller.

Antiviral – at Amazon

 

The Facility (2012, dir: Ian Clark)

A low-budget British chiller about a gaggle of disparate guys and gals who have all signed up for a weekend of drug testing at some remote clinic. Things, obviously, are going to go wrong, and they do.

It’s the way that this bunch of largely self-obsessed young people unknown to each are thrown together that is most reminiscent of Cube, but there’s also the sight of a director taking the very scantest of storylines and making something compelling and tense out of it.

If that doesn’t mark Ian Clark out as someone to watch I don’t know what does.

The Facility – at Amazon

 

Panic Button (2011, dir: Chris Crow)

Four winners of a competition run by a social networking site meet for the first time in the VIP lounge in an airport. Before long they are in a private jet being taken, ostensibly, to a holiday destination. Of course they’re going to no such place.

Shot on one camera by the look of things, then edited on a dying laptop and overdubbed with music seemingly grabbed at random from a fourth-rate music library, Panic Button doesn’t have production values going for it. But it does have purity and simplicity. And throwing a bunch of people together and then subjecting them to psychological torture – which is what the movie does – at 35,000 feet (or however high private jets go) is a nice high-concept touch.

The film falls apart spectacularly in its final reveal – which also knocks back its AWRT rating a bit – but much leg-knotting fun has been had on the way.

Panic Button – at Amazon

 

Pontypool (2008, dir: Bruce McDonald)

A thoroughly gripping low-budget thriller set pretty much in the one room of a radio station, where a former big noise in the DJ world is starting on his first day at a tiny local radio station, some terrible disgrace having busted him down to private.

One room, two people, I think it’s three by the time that Dr Mendez turns up. He’s the frankly bizarre doctor who first voices the theory which might explain all the weirdness that’s been building up as the day has progressed.

Pontypool (the name is Canadian, not Welsh) is one of the more out-there manifestations of the zombie movie, with a high concept so strange that it’s worth waiting for. And its AWRT trappings – a few people, a single room, banding together, a hidden menace – only add to the sense of bated expectation.

Pontypool – at Amazon

 

The Killing Room (2009, dir: Jonathan Liebesman)

There are famous names in this chiller, a loose mix of Cube, the Big Brother TV series, a bit of Bourne, even a hint of the British 1960s spy series The Avengers.

Peter Stormare plays Mother (that’s the Avengers‘ bit), the freakish scientist delegating rookie psychologist Chloe Sevigny to go over the data of experiments which have just finished, experiments which look very like the Stanford Experiment (Wikipedia explanation here) into the inclination of human beings to obey orders.

Except the experiments might not be over, meaning Sevigny is stuck in a big white space while some mad twisted nut pushes her buttons. The Killing Room isn’t perfect but its big reveal, when it comes, is worth hanging on for.

The Killing Room – at Amazon

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

6 May 2013-05-06

Naomi Watts in The Impossible

The Impossible (Entertainment One, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

The Spanish have an appetite for mutilation. Look at bullfighting, or the bloody effigies of the crucified Jesus Christ in their churches. And though this film is entirely in the English language, it has a Spanish director, writer and production money behind it. It’s very much a Spanish film.

So, parking my misgivings about a drama wrought from the 2004 tsunami in the bay marked “Anglo Saxon squeamishness”, let’s turn to the story of the nice family who copped the big wave while on holiday in Thailand.

It’s based on a Spanish family’s true experiences and does at least put a human face on the tragedy. Though human faces are pushed to one side when director Juan Antonio Bayona unleashes the monster wall of water after the film has only been running a scant number of minutes in scenes that completely eclipse Clint Eastwood’s tsunami drama, Hereafter.

Ewan McGregor and, particularly, Naomi Watts work like donkeys to keep this from being an exercise in shouting and, against all expectation, they succeed. The Impossible, bizarrely, successfully, is more an actors’ film than you might expect, more than your standard disaster-movie SFX spectacle.

 The Impossible – at Amazon

 

The Facility (Momentum, cert 18, DVD)

A bunch of people who don’t know each other spend the weekend at an isolated clinic where they are to be guinea pigs in the trial of an unknown drug. What could possibly go wrong?

Quite a lot, as it happens, and much of it is memorably nasty in the debut by writer/director Ian Clark, whose variant on the aseptic white room thriller (see Cube) gabbles through its set-up but then settles down nicely for the running-around screaming bit that these sort of films invariably work their way towards.

The Facility is well cast, knows how to play with genre expectations, has a couple of amusing thoughts about the older generation and their bloody recreational drug-taking – kids these days, eh – and marks Ian Clark out as a man to watch.

The Facility – at Amazon

 

Gangster (High Fliers, cert 15, DVD)

A Canadian film about one of the country’s more notorious hoodlums, Edwin Boyd (the film’s title in some areas), a WWII veteran driven by some shellshock and a fair amount of greed into becoming a bank robber.

Scott Speedman is Boyd, Kelly Reilly is his wife, Brian Cox barrels on to lend a bit of much needed weight, and the whole thing has been shot in that vaguely sepia tone achieved by turning the colour knob down a bit (ok, a lot).

Which is pretty much a metaphor for the whole film – an efficiently told tale, nothing more.

Gangster – at Amazon

 

Midnight’s Children (Entertainment One, cert 12, DVD)

Sneaked out with no fanfare as if it were a guilty secret, and on DVD only, tellingly, this adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s novel about the birth of modern India says a lot without saying very much at all.

The story – two children, one rich, one poor, switched at birth – is familiar enough. Its preoccupations – race, class, gender and the return of the empire – mark it out as a cultural product of the 1980s, as does the literary style, with its digressions into magic realism.

Which possibly is making it all sound much more interesting than it is. Because what is strange about this film is that it manages to have it all – charm, humour, breadth, budget, depth, politics.

It’s an epic, in other words, or should be, but its fleetingly episodic nature makes it impossible to get a handle on it. Perhaps the decision to get the book’s writer to do the screen adaptation wasn’t such a wise one.

Midnight’s Children – at Amazon

 

The Tower (Entertainment One, cert 15, DVD)

Now here’s a nice little curio, a complete crib from The Towering Inferno, done in Korean, set in a huge double skyscraper on Christmas Eve, where a succession of well introduced characters – the cute kid, the pretty young woman, her nervous beau, the stuck-up bitch, the dodgy builder, the fireman – are subjected to disaster movie mayhem.

The acting is about as over the top as it gets, particularly among characters further down the cast list, but this is a highly effective film, beautifully made, with some fabulously staged set pieces. There’s even a “die you callous bastard” Richard Chamberlain moment, which warms the cockles.

Tower – at Amazon 

 

Quartet (E One, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut isn’t quite what you’d expect from one of the world’s most famous Method actor mumblers. Unless you expected a drawing-room drama peopled by British actors of cut-glass diction.

The trailer had me reaching for a noose but the film itself, set in a home for retired musicians, is a guilty pleasure. But then it has Maggie Smith in it, and her gift for comedy is well to the fore in a script about an ageing diva (Smith) being coerced into performing Rigoletto by three other residents – Pauline Collins, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly.

Sensibly, Hoffman at no point lets us see the stars singing or even miming – since there is no way in hell that they would be plausible – and has packed the supporting cast with real singers of a certain age. Which really gives this gentle wallow an air of authenticity, an ideal accompaniment to Ronald Harwood’s script, which examines age, decay and death in a genteel unfussy fashion. Cocoa probably mandatory.

Quartet – at Amazon

 

Billy Liar (StudioCanal, cert PG, Blu-ray/DVD)

Tom Courtenay again, in one of the films that first made his name, and the reputation of the British New Wave of the early 1960s.

An adaptation of Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall’s play about a penpusher at a funeral business whose fantasy life both helps him escape the daily grind and prevents him from properly breaking free of it.

The film gave a breakthrough role to Julie Christie, as the free spirit Billy is fixated on, and this 50th anniversary restoration also reminds us of the beauty of John Schlesinger’s widescreen, deep-focus cinematography, which dresses the drab industrial settings with a wash of monochrome glamour.

Billy Liar – at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013