The Spanish “Fermat’s Room” is the latest in the enduringly popular puzzle thriller genre, which sees characters trapped and being forced to solve enigmas in order to avoid inventively gruesome fates. Here, writers and directors Luis Piedrahita and Rodrigo Sopeña (previously better known for their television work) do take a slightly different route, by attempting to work mathematics and philosophy into the mix, while trying to keep viewers on the edges of their seats. The film is being released on region 2 DVD by Revolver, and comes complete with deleted scenes, making of featurettes, plus special features on the film’s effects.
The film introduces its four main characters, all of whom receive a challenge to solve a complex mathematical problem, which if solved will result in them being invited to an exclusive and remote gathering. All are given the names of famous mathematicians – Galois (Pedro Almodóvar regular Alejo Sauras), Pascal (Santi Millán, “Idiot Love”), Hilbert (Lluís Homar, another Almodóvar veteran) and Oliva (Elena Ballesteros). They are greeted by the mysterious Fermat (Federico Luppi, “Pan’s Labyrinth”), who promptly leaves to check on his daughter in hospital. No sooner has he left than the door to the room locks, and a puzzle arrives on a PDA. When the four are too slow to solve it, the walls begin to close in, setting in motion a deadly puzzle and fight for survival.
Although the most obvious comparison for “Fermat’s Room” would be with Vincenzo Natali quirky 1997 thriller “Cube”, plus its two sequels, despite sharing a mathematical theme and puzzles revolving around prime numbers, not to mention the same gambit of throwing together a group of possible strangers, who may or may not know more about the situation than they are letting on, they are thankfully quite different. Here, directors Luis Piedrahita and Rodrigo Sopeña seem to be aiming for something more intellectual, and less visceral, and the film operates more on the level of a traditional thriller, complete with scenes outside the shrinking room and the obligatory last act twist. This approach works well enough, and although the film is not particularly ambitious and doesn’t offer anything unexpected, it does entertain throughout.
The mathematical puzzles do fall somewhat flat, mainly since the average viewer is unlikely to be able to solve them and since the film throws them at the characters with such speed, and mixed with other subplots and revelations, that they quickly become neither here nor there – it is pretty clear from early on that the room will continue to shrink, and few viewers would expect the characters to escape before Piedrahita and Sopeña have allowed the situation to become seriously threatening.
This having been said, the film does have a few minor surprises up its sleeve, and is fairly tense. Not a great deal actually happens aside from the walls closing in, and anyone expecting “Cube” or “Saw” style inventive deaths and thrills will be sorely disappointed. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and Piedrahita and Sopeña do deserve some credit for deliberately eschewing cheap exploitation tactics in favour of making the viewer think – it’s just unfortunate that there really isn’t too much to think about. Visually, the film is impressive, with some fairly slick production values, and interesting camera work keeps the main set from ever getting too familiar. The soundtrack does descend into distracting rock from time to time, which really wasn’t necessary for notching up the tension.
All in all, “Fermat’s Room” is a worthwhile, if underwhelming addition to the puzzle thriller subgenre that fans not expecting too much in the way of thrills should enjoy. Piedrahita and Sopeña are undoubtedly talented directors, showing a good visual sense grasp of the basic mechanics of suspense thrillers. However, it must be hoped that for their next outing they will attempt something a little more ambitious, or at least a little cleverer than “Fermat’s Room” seems to think it is.
Luis Piedrahita, Rodrigo Sopeña (director) / Luis Piedrahita, Rodrigo Sopeña (screenplay)
CAST: Lluís Homar … Hilbert
Alejo Sauras … Galois
Elena Ballesteros … Oliva
Santi Millán … Pascal
Federico Luppi … Fermat