The Tesseract (2003) Movie Review

“The Tesseract” sees Oxide Pang (“The Eye”) filming for the first time in the English language, and attempting to bring Alex Garland’s enigmatic second novel to the screen. The abject failure of the Hollywood adaptation of Garland’s debut novel, “The Beach” notwithstanding, this is a brave move, as although the book is written in a fairly cinematic fashion (Garland himself has since turned to screenwriting with the likes of “28 Days Later”), it is essentially a long, philosophical musing on the nature of fate, based around a disjointed narrative which leaps around in time and between a set of seemingly disparate characters.

The ‘tesseract’ of the title refers to the unravelling of a four dimensional hypercube into three dimensions, with the result “we can see the thing unravelled, but not the thing itself.” Basically, this translates into a film which focuses on several characters, telling their separate stories in the context of an overall narrative.

The action begins in a sleazy Bangkok hotel, with sweaty, twitchy Westerner Sean (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, “Bend it like Beckham”) nervously waiting to pick up a mysterious shipment. Also in the hotel are a depressed English child psychologist (Saskia Reeves), a female assassin and a chirpy street kid who has a tendency to steal from guests’ rooms. Gradually, their pasts and futures are revealed, as all four hurtle towards an inevitably violent karmic collision.

Wisely, Pang has chosen to scale down the novel, concentrating on one of its three parts, and weaving in the rest of the characters where possible, albeit in different roles. Although this was probably the only way in which the film could have been constructed, in doing so Pang does tend to gloss over much of Garland ‘s existential ponderings, and to an extent, misses the point entirely. To be fair, Pang does try and at least engage some of the novel’s themes, though when seen in such a compacted form, they seem to revolve around coincidence rather than anything resembling destiny.

Cinematically speaking, what is left is nothing new, as films with this kind of overlapping narrative structure have been popular ever since the success of “Pulp Fiction”, and although “The Tesseract” is marginally more complex and intelligent than the majority of its peers, it has a definite sense of staleness. Given this, for all its ponderous trappings, the film is hard to view as anything other than yet another thriller based around the tired conceit of a drug deal gone sour.

Although the film is tense, and the narrative progresses in a skilful, intriguing manner, the overall conclusion is never in doubt and, aside from a rather cheaply tacked on deus ex machina, is quite clearly signposted from the onset. Pang does compensate for this somewhat by fleshing out the characters, and by attempting to attain a level of uncommon moral complexity which at least makes the viewer more interested in the characters’ fates. This adds a welcome layer of depth, and makes the film far more enjoyable and gripping than it would otherwise have been.

Unfortunately Pang’s direction is a mixed bag, with the director employing a sense of chaos and manic energy that tends to further undermine the story’s contemplative core. Pang quite obviously expends far more energy on the film’s action sequences, at times painting them with bizarre psychedelic colours and shooting them at varying speeds. Although he never lapses into the kind of fast editing so common in this kind of film, his style, accomplished and interesting though it may be, feels distinctly out of place, and is ultimately a poor fit for the material at hand, making the film neither one thing nor the other.

This really is the bottom line with “The Tesseract”, as although it is undeniably interesting and entertaining in its own way, it is unlikely to appeal either to fans of the book or the average viewer, being at once too complex and yet too shallow by far. For Pang, it perhaps represents a learning experience, and a chance to take a further step towards becoming an established international film maker, though it also clearly underlines the fact that he has yet to overcome the hurdle of being a director of style rather than substance.

Oxide Pang (director) / Alex Garland (novel), Patrick Neater, Oxide Pang (screenplay)
CAST: Jonathan Rhys-Meyers …. Sean
Saskia Reeves …. Rosa
Alexander Rendel …. Wit
Carlo Nanni …. Roy
Lene Christensen …. Lita
Veradis Vinyarath …. Sia Toh

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