Though dealing with a multitude of complicated themes, Sensation—the second film from director Martin Grof—lacks clarity in the way it communicates its substantive subject matter.
Sensation, from its kaleidoscopic opening credits to its unnerving exploration of human sensory experience, is designed to be a disorienting experience. Ultimately, however, it feels more confusing than complex.
Andrew (Eugene Simon) is a postman and an exceptional violin player who enlists the help of Dr. Marinus (Alistair G. Cumming) to uncover information about his mother and his family’s ancestry. Andrew provides his DNA to the doctor to help with the search and, some time after the meeting, Andrew receives a knock at the door. Then, following a man in a hat and long coat, he is led through the streets and down an escalator before eventually finding himself travelling to a remote research facility in the British countryside. There he is introduced to Nadia (Emily Wyatt) who reveals the facility’s program for special sensory superhumans, like Andrew, who will be trained to receive, control and send information based on the senses of others.
Though Nadia assures Andrew that he is not being held at the facility, she also explains that if he chooses to refuse to participate he will not receive any help and will be left completely alone. Hesitantly, Andrew steps inside. There he meets other sensory superhumans Shaan (Anil Desai), Rebecca (Bethan Wright), Yuri (Kai Francis Lewis), Quinn (Lorraine Tai) and the enigmatic May (Jennifer Martin).
The mystery develops as the training begins: are we prisoners to our sensations, or powerful because of them? Are we locked in by our senses, or liberated by them? Can we sharpen our senses, developing our receptivity to stimuli, or even do away with the need for stimuli altogether? Though imperfect, there are interesting ideas latent in Sensation. The film introduces us to some deeply human problems: alienation from the past; unanswered questions; the difficulty in deciphering reality from unreality; the limits (and potential) of sensory experience; the tendency toward exaggeration and heroism. Most obviously, the film speaks to our cultural zeitgeist—the increasing societal fear of DNA and data being used to frame, manipulate and control us.
The frustration is that Sensation merely utilises ideas (or fears) rather than explicating them. The film deals with difficult themes but approaches them without any real depth; a problem that cuts through repeatedly. It hovers over forensics and eugenics and touches on ideas of simulacra, simulation and Stockholm syndrome as if name-dropping them at a house party. Some of the subject matter does take you by surprise, but threads are underdeveloped to the point of being frustratingly superfluous. The film feels more like a brainstorm, a scattergun, than a clear vision of a DNA-driven society.
Similarly, there is an existential threat that never really develops. The film teases you with the outside world, with the wider implications of the training and the mission, but never actually explores it. The motivations behind creating such a technology are never revealed; we are simply told that it’s dangerous and unsafe. There are moments when we are reminded to read what we sign, to demand the details and to be sceptical of the reality presented to us by others, but Sensation doesn’t elicit a concrete reaction—you are left largely apathetic.
The performances from Eugene Simon, Emily Wyatt and Jennifer Martin, in particular, show some potential, but the entirety is held back by unnatural dialogue and a disjointed plot. There are too many scenes with exposition when there doesn’t need to be exposition and too many scenes with a lack of exposition when there actually needs to be exposition. Sensation’s redeeming quality is undoubtedly its impressive cinematography, which handles transitions between multiple realities with poise.
For a film centred on the difficulty in telling reality from unreality, Sensation ultimately fails to convince you of its own authenticity. Information is constantly withheld—whether intentionally or unintentionally—but there isn’t a satisfactory payoff for your blind concentration. It is a commendable concept, poorly executed.
Sensation will be available via digital download from 16 April.
Words by Ben Thomas
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