Exam (2009)

*. Not what I was expecting.
*. Here’s what I thought I was getting: the Game of Death premise (contestants locked in a room and kept under surveillance while they try to escape or eliminate the competition before the clock runs out) given a political edge, made over into an allegory of the dog-eat-dog world of business. The basic premise of the Spanish film The Method, but given an extra tightening of the screw. It’s a J. G. Ballard sort of set-up, which would have made for some interesting commentary.
*. That’s not how Exam plays, at all. But, you may well ask, so what? So it’s not the movie I thought it would be or wanted it to be. That’s not the movie’s fault.
*. Unfortunately, it’s not a good movie even judged on its own terms.
*. In the first place, there’s nothing remotely realistic about it. Indeed, the premise is made even more bizarre and artificial than usual — and these locked-room stories are nothing if not artificial, mimicking the anti-reality of reality TV. The plot is given a bizarre SF overlay having to do with some new wonder drug. It seems the company isn’t a ruthless conglomerate but is instead involved in developing biotechnology that’s going to save the human race. So these contestants are going to kill each other for the opportunity to . . . do some good! Huh?

*. Then there is the challenge itself. The job applicants are given a sheet of paper and told there is one question to answer and they have a limited time to answer it. But the papers appear to be blank. So one would assume there is some sort of trick involved. There is, but since this group of corporate climbers consists of the most literal-minded types imaginable they try to solve the problem by such expedients as smashing light sources to fill the room with different frequencies of light, or setting off the sprinkler system to see if soaking the paper reveals any invisible ink.
*. This might be funny, with the applicants all being too smart for their own good, but I don’t think that’s how it’s meant to be taken. Nor is there any political allegory or message involved. In the end, the test is revealed to have been both cruel and pointless, which seems particularly odd given the CEO and his corporation’s humanistic mission.
*. To give you some idea of how jarring and out of synch the ending is, there’s a montage of flashbacks at the end that recalls the similar montage at the end of Saw. The difference is that the montage at the end of Saw explains the rest of the movie perfectly. Here it’s just a recap of what’s happened, none of which there is any point in recapping since it doesn’t give us any information that lets us reinterpret the events of the previous ninety minutes.

*. The one thing I did like was the opening credit sequence, which had the applicants appearing to be getting ready to go into battle by fixing their hair, straightening their ties, putting on make-up, and stepping into high heels. Those heels will actually come in handy later on too. I only wish there was more of that sort of thing.
*. In brief, I didn’t get the ending and I didn’t think it was any fun getting there. Surprisingly, Exam did receive some good reviews, complimenting the direction, script and cast. People seemed impressed at what was done on such a limited set. I could name some very, very bad movies made with similar limitations. As for the acting, I think the accents might have helped sell what are some pretty dull performances. I mean, another thing about the incongruity of the ending is that the winner is a character who does and says almost nothing the entire film, and about whom we know the least. So how are we to even care?
*. It was a simple enough idea, meaning the movie really only had to do a few things right. I didn’t think it did any of them well enough. That’s my final grade.

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