Sunday, September 15, 2013

Errors Of The Human Body: The Flesh Is Willing, But The Spirit Is Weak

Pretty much any scary movie involving scientific research is going to go to the "man is the real monster" well at some point - arrogance, weakness, hubris, all lead characters otherwise the epitome of sanity and reason to do awful, insane, irrational shit. You don't really have a movie otherwise. But every now and then, as I've discovered, you can hope for one where the awful, irrational shit doesn't come from the direction you're expecting. You're so busy watching one part of the story for the moment it all goes pear-shaped that the seeds of the truly awful part get sown unseen in a whole other part of the story. A little misdirection, when applied well, goes a long way, as it does in Errors of the Human Body.

Geoff Burton is a geneticist who has just arrived in Germany to start a new research job. He's an American, outrunning a failed marriage and the death of his newborn son at the hands of a rare genetic abnormality. He hasn't published anything in years, and he was forced out of his old job because his research was taking a turn for the controversial. On paper, we know who Burton is - he's the Frankenstein of the story, driven mad by tragedy and trying to defy the laws of nature. But that's not who he is at all, not in this story. He's a deeply wounded man who has been cut loose from his moorings, alone in a strange country. He's introduced to Rebekkah, who once interned for him and with whom he apparently he had a bit of a fling, and Jarek, who is intense and incredibly creepy, rattling off monologues to Burton about using viral vectors to introduce vaccines to Third World populations ("they're going to get bit anyway") and Stalin and Mao's beliefs that ideology is communicable. He doesn't blink enough and has a little trouble with the concept of personal space.

Rebekkah's working on something called "the Easter gene" - the trait that allows salamanders to regenerate limbs - and how to introduce it into mammalian biology as a healing factor. She's hit a bit of a dead end, and wants Burton to help her. Jarek wants Burton to help him because he sees Burton as a fellow maverick - someone more interested in pushing the envelope than worrying about protocol. They both misread Burton to one degree to another, but Burton would much rather work with his former intern than the dude who wants to rewrite diseases into tools of social engineering. In the course of hashing out his role with Rebekkah (personally even more than professionally), he discovers that Jarek is stealing her research and running experiments with it off the books in a secret lab. Burton takes back Rebekkah's material and takes one of Jarek's test mice for good measure. And when you have a mouse infected with Something Unnatural, bad shit has to occur, which it does in pretty short order. Geoff starts to wonder why he was offered the job in the first place, what everyone's agendas are, and just how intent the people at this facility are at transforming exactly what it means to be human.

There's a lot of striking imagery, and lots of well-composed shots - the movie looks great, even when it's ugly. Everything is either cool and sleek and minimal, or grungy and utilitarian. The basic wrongness of Jarek's little side experiments is summed up nicely by a lab fridge that has half-eaten sandwiches next to biological samples, and a lab space that's little more than a cul-de-sac in a basement  walled off by a strong fence and some plastic sheeting. It's the same juxtaposition of the scientific and the industrial that worked so well in Antiviral. Geoff looks sort of slack and doughy, like his own skin doesn't fit, like a living person who has had someone else's face transplanted onto his. Jarek is manic, taut and hairless, like a skull with a doctorate, and everything outside the lab is icy and forbidding, nighttime is a forest of shadows and the day is lit by the glare from snow and flat gray clouds. There is precious little warmth in this movie, and what moments there are get snuffed out like a candle or illuminate Geoff at his lowest.

What makes this movie different, is that - all biotech imagery (and title) aside - Errors of the Human Body is not the body horror story you think it's going to be. It has all the requisite moving parts for a body horror story, everything is cool and sterile, there's a clandestine lab tucked far back in the basement of a research facility, and there's research conducted outside the bounds of ethics and professional courtesy with the potential for profound transformation - but that's not where the ugly secrets are. There are allusions to freakish possibilities for biology, but they're beside the point. The point is the decision someone made with the information they had available to them, and how that wrong decision would be their undoing. It's a movie about tampering with nature, but not in the ways you'd think. It takes the better part of the movie to get there and we spend most of the movie wondering when things are going to get monstrous. When they do, it's not a proliferation of tumors or rogue bodyparts sprouting from improbable places. It's in a single question, one which recalls a single flashback from earlier in the movie, and the careful observer will, in what seems like a premature resolution to the events of the movie, recognize exactly what the importance of that moment was, what the question implies, and the awful truth settles on your heart like a stone.

It's a bit rushed toward the end - we're supposed to get a sense of Geoff's mounting paranoia and isolation, but we're given so little time in which to experience the things that are happening to him that what should be circumstances closing in around him feels more like just trying to figure out the sort of office politics common to any research job. The abbreviated course of events makes his inevitable freakout seems like it's coming from the wrong place. As a byproduct of this, characters that start off mostly played quietly and to a human scale quickly escalate to histrionics, and it doesn't feel earned, just like someone turned the volume knob up suddenly. This is mostly forgivable, though, because I can't remember the last time I saw a movie that hid its beating heart so well and revealed it in such small ways. The obvious threat was never a threat - it was this thing lurking on the periphery while you busied yourself with the prospect of a monster in the making. The monster was there the whole time.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available from Amazon Instant Video
Available from Netflix

1 comment:

  1. I've had this one in my queue since it showed up on Netflix but for one reason or another haven't gotten around to watching it yet. I'll watch it tonight on the basis of this review; looking forward to it.