Written by William Drew
Reminiscent of Shane Carruth and Moorhead and Benson, Eric Schultz’s debut feature Minor Premise takes its place in a particular cinematic niche that we might call, until someone comes up with something better, mumblecore sci-fi.
Made on a low budget with small casts, these films twist their limitations to their advantage by presenting scenarios that feel much closer to scientific reality than the big-budget high fantasy that fill out multiplexes. By presenting a world almost identical to our own, they focus tightly on one single “what-if” and the characters we follow are often the ones who are making the discovery in the very first instance: in other words they are scientists. In their social awkwardness, they may have some similarities with the usual directionless middle-class urbanites of other mumblecore fare but for one key element: they have real jobs. Jobs they work at, a lot, all the time. Through the scenarios they present they’re also able to pose grand ethical questions as conventional morality starts to slip away. In their hyper-realism, they make us think about ourselves: what you do in that situation?
While the what-if of Primer was time travel, Minor Premise posits the possibility of the fracturing of the self. The reason we can’t simply upload or delete a human being’s memories is that these memories are inseparable from emotion. This is why we talk about triggers. It’s an issue that Ethan (Sathya Sridharan) has been battling with for some time. Part of his motivation is an intellectual one, as he attempts to develop a machine that can turn a single human identity into data, but it’s also a legacy he has been bestowed from his father. He is continuing the research his recently deceased father started. His own sense of self appears to be bound up with a sense of both competing and honouring his father. It’s significant that his own identity seems to have been warped by carrying this weight. As a coping mechanism, Ethan unoriginally turns to alcohol and this, it seems, was the cause of the collapse of his last significant relationship with Allie (Paton Ashbrook), who works for the same research institute as him and, formerly, his dad. The lack of any kind of healthy distance becomes a bit of an ongoing thing here.
Leading us to the bulk of the narrative which takes the form of a claustrophobic thriller, as Ethan realises that he has drunkenly used the machine to split his own personality into ten personas. There’s the default self and he moves through each of them in order every six minutes before returning to the default self. The personas include “intellect”, “libido”, “lethargy”, etc. There’s also a very violent one who is trying to take over. There are echoes of The Curious Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in the struggle over the self of Ethan and the fear that he may become subsumed by the darkest part of his own nature.
The scientific rigour that’s gone into the script is impressive and I am wary that my own knowledge of neuroscience is insufficient to really do it justice. It’s a fascinating examination of the many parts that make up the self. In the shifts from one personality to the next, there’s a very primal kind of horror: that your friend or lover might become a different person suddenly, a person that wants to harm you. It’s at its best when it’s in fast-paced thriller mode, grounded in these moral and intellectual questions. When it reaches its resolution, however, it moves incongruously into a highly sentimental ending with a voice-over telling you exactly what the film’s themes were. It’s disappointing for a film that starts with such breathless intensity and feels far more trite than the rest deserved.
Rating: 3 out of 5