*. There’s a scene that occurs about halfway through A Cure for Wellness that goes a long way to tell you what’s wrong with the film. The protagonist Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is introduced to a giant sensory deprivation tank. And when I say giant I mean about five times bigger than the tank William Hurt floated in back in Altered States, which was already five times bigger than it needed to be. We see that Lockhart is going to float at the bottom of the tank, breathing through a long umbilical breathing hose (the experience is supposed to mimic being in the womb). Sensors are also attached to his chest to monitor his heart rate on a graph machine set up beside where an attendant is stationed. The attendant can view Lockhart through a glass window in the tank. Finally, Lockhart is told to just tap on the glass if there is any trouble.
*. Well, you’re probably saying to yourself, I’ll bet this is what’s going to happen. First, something is going to distract the attendant. Then something scary is going to happen to Lockhart in the tank and he’ll signal to get out. But the attendant, who is distracted, won’t see him. Then the needle on the graph will start going crazy as Lockhart panics. Then, since this is only an hour in to a two-and-a-half hour movie, he will be rescued from the tank, gasping and nearly unconscious.
*. You would, of course, be right about all of this. I hope that gives some idea how uninspired A Cure for Wellness is. There are no surprises. A young man (not Leonardo DiCaprio) heads off to a Swiss sanatorium (not Shutter Island, or Marienbad) to rescue a CEO named Kurtz (no! his name’s Pembroke), only to find that it’s one of those sinister hospitals where something monstrous is going on. Once people check in, they never leave. The head doctor (Jason Isaacs, not Vincent Price) doesn’t seem like the kind of guy you can trust. (Robbie Collin: “If I tell you the name of the doctor is Heinreich Volmer, do you think he’s going to turn out to be nice? Not so nice? Hard to tell?”) The staff are obviously all in on it, whatever “it” is, but they aren’t saying anything. Patients disappear. It seems like there’s something in the water. There’s a story about the sanatorium involving a mad baron and his child bride, who was burned at the stake. Have you got all that?
*. To give you another example of this predictability, the finale has Lockhart uncovering the secret of the spa through close examination of an old photograph. The only problem is that while he’s doing this the audience has already figured things out. In fact, it’s likely we figured it all out an hour before the movie ends. So all the business with the photograph is just more dragging things out, for a payoff that’s not worth it.
*. It didn’t do well with critics or audiences, though some praise was thrown its way for the photography. I thought this was misplaced. It’s another movie with great-looking production design, but that’s all. It’s just pretty. The sanatorium is a Disney fairy tale castle, complete with a princess in need of being rescued. On the inside it’s all done out in the spirit of gothic medicine: primitive apparatuses that look like medieval torture machines and lots of creepy corridors that don’t seem to go anywhere. On the lower levels you get the candles and the fetuses floating in jars of formaldehyde. Again, you know the picture. You’ve seen all of this before.
*. CGI doesn’t scare me. I don’t like what it’s done to film in general, but what I mean here is that it doesn’t scare me, and I scare pretty easy. CGI monsters and CGI gore leave me unimpressed. For the most part the monsters here are a bunch of eels that are CGI. I wasn’t scared, or even disgusted that much, by them. And I think that I was supposed to be.
*. There isn’t any story to speak of beyond the basic premise. This is a movie meant to look at, not to follow. There are a bunch of creepy images but they don’t all connect and we’re never sure how many of them are real and how many are visions. Basically the plot is an extrapolation of data points from Thomas Mann and Kafka through Poe and Lovecraft to whatever or wherever we’re at now. The ending is particularly bad, lazy and bordering on offensive. And the message?
*. Some reviewers, and I mean more than a few, saw the whole thing as somehow symbolic, or a metaphor for late-stage capitalism. Perhaps they were getting this from press kits. Here is composer Benjamin Wallfisch telling us what it all made him think of: “This movie confronts you with some potent questions: How do we find true meaning in a world of consumerism and material gain, where we have to strive to find truth in a maze of media manipulation?”
*. To which I can only respond: Huh? Yes, Lockhart is a soulless Wall Street prick. And yes the patients at the spa are rich people being sucked dry by a demonic mountebank but . . . so what? How is this a satire or critique of materialism? Does Verbinski just want to say that chasing after money is a sign of sickness and moral rot and that we need to find some kind of wholesome balance in our lives? Not, assuredly, at this particular clinic, but, you know, somewhere. Is that it?
*. Why throw so much in the way of talent and resources into such a retread of an idea, such a mishmash of other films, none of them particularly groundbreaking themselves? Roger Corman or Hammer would have made this same movie (and I think they did) in ten days (not the five months this took) and for $100,000. And while it might not have looked as slick, it would have at least made sense and not taken so long.