'Minor Premise': Film Review

Minor Premise
Justin Derry
A tense thriller built around the science of consciousness.

A scientist's experimentation on his own brain goes horribly wrong in Eric Schultz's sci-fi debut.

Dr. Jekyll had it easy. In Eric Schultz's Minor Premise, a scientist who's foolish enough to experiment on himself winds up with not one alter-ego but nine, all competing for control of his body. A mad-science thriller whose inventions spring from a point of actual scholarship (co-screenwriter Justin Moretto has degrees in neuroscience and biotech; Schultz studied psychology at Harvard), it asks us to suspend disbelief in order to work through some concepts about memory and identity that real scientists spend their lives on. Happily, it never feels like homework.

Sathya Sridharan plays Ethan Kochar, a brilliant neuroscientist who's currently mourning both personal and professional losses: His mentor and father died some time ago, and the credit for breakthroughs they made together is going mostly to the dead man. Dad's colleague Malcolm (Dana Ashbrook) is struggling to keep Ethan from spiraling into alcoholic depression so he can continue their work on a machine that turns subjects' memories into digital video files. But Malcolm has little idea how far things have gone in Ethan's basement lab.

Ethan has already tried using his invention to not just read but change his brain, erasing painful encounters with his father. Now he thinks he can go further. Having mapped out pathways in his gray matter that seem to control his intellect, as opposed to emotion and other functions, he wants to suppress everything else for an hour and see if his cogitation improves. Inevitably, something goes wrong.

Schultz's subjective shooting and editing style jumbles the clues, but soon we realize that the weird blackouts Ethan's having aren't (or aren't only) caused by booze, grief and that earlier experiment: The machine has now chopped his brain function into ten pieces, and he's rotating through them constantly. One moment, he's what friends would recognize as himself; soon he's consumed with euphoria, then libido, then anger and so on.

The most hard-to-buy element in this scenario is the one most amenable to a ticking-clock suspense film: Even long after he steps away from the brain machine, Ethan shifts from one "section" to another every six minutes on the dot. His primary self is only conscious for those minutes, leaving his other, newly isolated personalities to wreak havoc he can't remember for the other 54. Thank goodness for security cameras, which help him reconstruct what he missed. Another genre-friendly stretch is that all this action is destroying Ethan's brain in a predictable way, requiring him to fix his machine and reintegrate his personalities before brain matter is irreparably destroyed.

All this plays out as a Memento-style detective story whose structural quirks are less easily grasped than Christopher Nolan's were. (And, partly as a result, are less gripping.) As in that film, non-impaired bystanders introduce the possibility that people are screwing with Ethan or that one section of his head is screwing with the rest: Paton Ashbrook (Dana's niece) plays Alli, a former colleague and girlfriend of Ethan, who visits his house just as he's realizing what he has done.

Though Alli does become the keeper of some secrets, the role is mostly a pretty thin one, functioning as Ethan's lab assistant and babysitter while he does most of the heavy thinking. As the six-minute cycles churn on — and as we try to ignore how much action has to fit into each of them for the plot to make sense — that dank, underilluminated basement is a fine setting for increasing anxiety. The most valuable parts of Ethan's brain are burning out faster than the ones threatening to destroy his work, and things are getting sweaty. The race to hold on to an identity being fragmented by technology, imagined so hauntingly in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, is pure genre formula here, which isn't to say it's not fun. In the end, we reach some conclusions storytellers were drawing long before fMRI scans peered into our skulls. Here's hoping real-world technology isn't quick to catch up to Ethan Kochar's.

Production companies: Bad Theology, Relic Pictures
Distributor: Utopia (Available Friday, December 4 in theaters, virtual cinemas, and Digital & On-Demand)
Cast: Sathya Sridharan, Paton Ashbrook, Dana Ashbrook
Director: Eric Schultz
Screenwriters: Justin Moretto, Eric Schultz, Thomas Torrey
Producers: Justin Moretto, Eric Schultz, Nicolai Schwarzkopf, Thomas Torrey, Ross O'Connor
Director of photography: Justin Derry
Production designer: Annie Simeone
Editors: James Codoyannis, Christopher Radcliff
Composer: Gavin Brivik
Casting directors: Sig De Miguel, Stephen Vincent

95 minutes