By WILLIAM J. WRIGHT
Starring Eugene Simon, Emily Wyatt, Jennifer Martin, and Alistair G. Cumming
Written by Magdalena Drahovska and Martin Grof
Directed by Martin Grof
Writer-director Martin Grof manages to effectively channel the spirit of such early David Cronenberg works as Scanners and Videodrome into a taut, sci-fi mystery with his sophomore effort SENSATION.
Eugene Simon (best known for his role as Lancel Lannister in HBO’s Game of Thrones) stars as Andrew Cooper, a young man searching for clues about his ancestry. Cooper, an only child raised by a single mother, knows virtually nothing of his family tree. Hoping to get some answers, he submits a DNA sample to a genetic genealogy agency only to discover that they can find no matches. Following an uncomofirtable encounter with one of the agency’s consultants, Dr. Marinus (portrayed with scenery-chewing glee by Alistair G. Cumming), Andrew departs for his flat with a mysterious red-haired woman (Jennifer Martin) on his heels.
Following a violent encounter, Marinus explains to an incredulous Andrew that his “application has been fast-forwarded” and he is to join a top-secret program immediately. Whisked away to a secluded, palatial estate, Andrew learns that he and several others have been chosen for “training” because of their heightened, superhuman senses. Subjected to mind-warping, hallucinatory scenarios, Andrew slowly discovers the sinister origins of the secret program as well as clues about his family’s murky past. However, as Andrew develops his unique genetic powers, he also learns that nothing is what it seems.
On the surface, SENSATION’s plot draws from a number of science fiction and espionage tropes that evoke everything from The Matrix to Patrick McGoohan’s 1960s television series The Prisoner to The X-Men to The Manchurian Cadidate. Although the film definitely wears its influences on its sleeve, it would be unfair to dismiss director Martin Grof’s methods as merely derivative. Yes, much of SENSATION’s story is well-worn genre territory, but Grof and co-writer Magdalena Drahovska have constructed this seemingly familiar narrative in a way that is both engaging and unnerving. Without giving away the film’s third act revelations, it seems that Grof is making a decidedly nihilistic statement about the influence of pop culture and the nature of the human ego. Grof wisely presents a complex thematic question and leaves the answer to his audience.
Visually, SENSATION is, at times, a beautiful film. Grof composes his frames with a symmetry that gives weight to every element in a given scene. Shifting between vibrant and nearly monochromatic palettes, Grof’s use of contrasting warm and cool colors heighten and accentuate SENSATION’s more hallucinatory moments. Even in some of SENSATION’s weaker scenes, the visuals are often compelling enough to carry the film.
For the most part, the cast delivers solid performances despite some of the roles being underdeveloped. Lead Eugene Simon’s portrayal of Andrew is confident with an appropriate touch of naivete that makes the character relatable and likable. The real standouts are Jennifer Martin who portrays May, the genetic program’s trainer, who has the uncanny ability to to manipulate her subjects’ senses to create lifelike illusions, and Emily Wyatt who, as Nadia, a subject turned program administrator, brings a sense of understated menace to the film. Alistair G. Cumming is unhinged as Dr. Marinus with an over-the-top performance as the film’s obligatory mad scientist, yet he manages to reign his performance in just enough to keep the character from lapsing into parody.
Still, SENSATION is not without its flaws. An unnecessary and unmotivated bit of internal monologue threatens to derail the film early on, and there are points where the dialogie comes across as unconvincing and clunky. Its pivotal third act is unevenly paced and, at times, feels rushed. Although SENSATION relies on mystery to achieve its intended effect, just a bit more information about the characters and their motivations might have provided the emotional impact to really hammer its shock ending home.
SENSATION has been favorably compared to David Cronenberg’s early work and it does effectively echo the manic tone of such films as Scanners and Videodrome. Missing, however, is Croneberg’s celebrated body horror which seems like a missed opportunity for a film predicated on the manipulation of the senses. Given its subject matter, SENSATION is a bloodless, fleshless, sexless affair that is surprisingly sterile in the physical interactions of its characters. Ultimately, SENSATION doesn’t quite live up to its own ambitions. However, it is an intelligent film that demands its audience’s engagement. Despite some missteps of plot and charcterization, SENSATION is an effective parable of 21st century paranoia and well worth seeking out.
SENSATION is now available On Demand.