So, math. It’s not my favorite thing in the world. I appreciate its significance. I enjoy a certain kind of logic puzzle. I even tried reading a book about calculus this year because it promised solutions to varied problems like weight loss and the zombie apocalypse. (I can’t pretend I understood even half of it, but it was entertaining enough, I’ll give it that.) But as a rule, I am generally on the side of Math is Evil, and a movie about four mathematicians doing anything doesn’t sound like something I’d be into.
Unless those four mathematicians are also strangers who are locked together in a room, of course, hastily solving math puzzles and trying to figure out how they’re secretly connected before they all die horrible, horrible deaths.
I’d hoped to say that Fermat’s Room would be the Bottle Episode Mystery Movie to finally get an A grade from me. Sadly — while a mild improvement over Unknown and a vast improvement over Nine Dead — I think this one’s got some significant problems too.
Four mathematicians are invited to a Super Secret Math Party by the mysterious Fermat. Unfortunately, our heroes are soon trapped in a room that starts shrinking every time they fail to solve a mathematical puzzle in the allotted time.
1. One of my biggest problems in this movie? LACK OF PRIORITIES.
If you’re stuck in what’s essentially the better furnished and better smelling Garbage Compactor Room from Star Wars, then your only priorities are simple: stop the walls from moving and figure out an escape route before you’re crunched and horribly squished to death. I mean, does that even need to be said? I feel like that shouldn’t need to be said.
Well, apparently it does need to be said because these four routinely do not act as though their very lives depend on actually solving these puzzles in time, or at least, they don’t act this way consistently. At one point, The One Girl (Elena Ballesteros) — whose actual pseudonym in this film is Oliva, a pseudonym I will not be using — is the only person in the room who’s trying to figure out the Super Important Puzzle and saying things like, “Let’s figure out why we were all targeted in between puzzles, okay?” This shows good common sense on her part, common sense she will absolutely NOT show later on when she slowly, and with plenty of dramatic pauses, reveals her relevant backstory as critical seconds are counting down. (I guess at least someone is working on the puzzle in the meantime. I do understand why you wouldn’t necessarily want four mathematicians all talking over each other to try and solve the same problem simultaneously — but there are ways to work around that problem that are probably better than one person delivering Story Time to two captivated audience members while one dude tries to keep them all from being crunched to death.)
To be clear, this isn’t just on The One Girl. Pretty much everyone in the room shows a stunning lack of priorities at one point or another. Terrible Bangs, AKA Bangs, AKA Galois (Alejo Sauras), is particularly awful in this regard. But he’s sort of a useless asshole in general.
2. In fact, we should be clear on this: no one in this room deserves to live.
I really enjoy live action Escape the Room games, so I totally understand the thrill of doing something that you know would totally get you killed off in a B-horror movie. I get it, but guys, this movie was made in 2007. Any letter that basically says, “Come to my secret locale but don’t talk to anyone about it and don’t bring your cell phone?” Bull. SHIT. You don’t just say, “Well, that sounds legit,” and trot off to your squishy demise. Do some basic internet research and make sure the whole thing’s above board. And yes, that means more than a five second glance at Google. That Escape the Room game I went to? Yeah, I absolutely chose the one that had actual Yelp reviews, not the one nobody seemed to know anything about located in a part of the city I wasn’t familiar with.
And for fuck’s sake, I don’t care what that invite says: you bring your cell phone. You can turn off your cell phone, sure, but any anonymous person asking you not to bring it at all? That person probably wants to either eat your flesh or turn your skin into doll parts. Don’t become dinner or doll parts, people. #TheMoreYouKnow
3. I should probably briefly introduce our four main players before we continue.
So, this is Bangs. We meet him four months prior to the main story, where he is on the verge of proving some Big Deal Impossible Math Theorem, and it seems immediately clear to me that he is something of a young hotshot/condescending slime bucket. Case in point: he’s flirting with two swooning coeds by simultaneously bragging about his accomplishments while completely insulting their intelligence. I assume these girls are supposed to be math students admiring a genius in their midst, not just a couple of random hot ladies fanning themselves over Bangs’s mathematical prowess and terrible hair — but then, if they are math students, why aren’t they slapping the hell out of Bangs for asking them if they know what prime numbers are? I mean, that’s some sexist bullshit going on right there. I know what prime numbers are, and I didn’t even get past Algebra II in high school.
(It should be said that I assume that this whole exchange was directed more at the audience than these unnecessary extras. But honestly, no one in the audience needs to know what prime numbers are to understand this movie. You might have a little more fun with the puzzles if you actually have a shot of solving them in time, but nothing in this plot is too complicated for the rest of us. And if you want to try and solve the puzzles with more than the allotted time, you can always use the pause button. It might break the dramatic tension, sure, but the characters are clearly more than happy to do that for you as well.)
This is Old Guy, AKA Hilbert (Lluís Homar). Originally, my nickname for Old Guy was Depression because in his introduction we learn that he’s been isolating himself for some time now and has even considered suicide. However, his invitation to our Super Secret Math Party appears to have levied his spirits somewhat, so I quickly switched over to Old Guy since he’s at least 10-30 years older than everyone else in the room and has sort of a grandfatherly vibe to him.
This is Library, AKA Pascal (Santi Millán), so named because we meet him in a library. Yes, my creativity knows no bounds. We don’t know too much about Library right away, other than he’s struggling with the problem (the one on the invite — you have to solve it to go to the SSMP) and only manages to answer it because a helpful librarian unintentionally gives him a Lightbulb Moment. Also, he makes duck-shaped popcorn poppers, cause that’s not weird or anything.
Finally, this is The One Girl. Unfortunately, The One Girl is apparently judged unworthy of an introduction because she never really gets one. All I can really tell you about her at this point is that she does not appear to be overly impressed with the duck-shaped popcorn poppers.
4. One of my favorite things about Fermat’s Room, actually, is the puzzles themselves. I really do like certain types of logic puzzles. I’m not great at them, but I enjoy them and there are even a few I’ve managed to figure out on my own — not under a minute, mind you, but still. A lot of the puzzles in this movie were actually familiar to me because they were all variants of ones I’d seen featured on io9’s old Sunday Puzzle column. Unfortunately, that didn’t really help me answer any of them in time. Still, I thought it was neat.
I did wonder, though, if the puzzles would actually be a little too well-known for these mathematicians. I’m not sure about this. I don’t actually know any mathematicians to ask. I will say, though, that I enjoyed how some of our Math Heroes were better at certain kinds of puzzles than others. That rang pretty true to me. After all, not all knowledge is universal. If you put me and my writer buddy Bryan in a room together and made us play Literature Trivia or we DIE . . . well, let’s just say that Bryan would mop up in the Jorge Luis Borges category, whereas your snarky reviewer would absolutely be chopped up for those squishy doll parts. On the other hand, I suspect (though cannot confirm) that I might be able to best him in Urban Fantasy, or at least the Laurell K. Hamilton category. You feel free to make whatever judgy judgments of that as you will.
5. Still, I continue to be frustrated by the non-logical approach our Math Heroes use to solve their logic problems. It’s not just their whole “One Person Works, Three People Chat” strategy, although that definitely irks to the point of madness — cause yeah, if I get the Jorge Luis Borges category, then sure, there’s really no point in my even bothering to play, and I’ll go work on the “Fruitlessly Trying to Stop The Walls With This Clearly Ineffectual Piano” plan or maybe trying to figure out the “Why We Were All Specifically Targeted” riddle. But if Bryan and I have to solve something we both know a little about — say, Shakespearean anagrams — then we could both potentially bring something to table and work separately to increase our chances of success. Certain people have strengths and weaknesses, sure, but I refuse to believe that every problem these people are given can only be solved by one person.
But all right, put that on hold for a minute — because here’s something else: the problems have to be solved in under a minute, right, or else the walls start to push inwards and keep pushing inwards until the correct answer is given. There’s not really any punishment for giving the wrong answer; the walls just keep moving, that’s all. So when you come across problems that are multiple choice (as some of them are), why waste so much time trying to solve it? Wouldn’t it actually be faster to just input the first option, see if the walls start to move, and then respond accordingly?
Sometimes, guessing is actually the right way to go.
(Disclaimer: I’m totally going to spoil something for Clue in here as well. That movie came out thirty years ago, so I don’t feel all that bad about it — but just so you know. All kinds of spoilers abound and seriously, go watch Clue.)
So, let’s just get this out of the way: Old Guy is the Bad Guy.
I kind of figured from the get-go that one of our Math Heroes was secretly a villain. I never really picked a suspect — actually, the movie revealed it a little before I was expecting them too — but there are things that work for me about the Old Guy being evil. One, of course, is his attitude adjustment: of course he’s not depressed anymore! He gets to kill people!
But the fact that he’s older than everyone else and has supposedly been to one of these Super Secret Math Parties before actually lends an interesting amount of credence to the setup. In the beginning, OG’s constantly telling the others what to expect from such a shindig, and the fact that he’s sometimes right (for instance, with how the Room of Doom will look) makes this whole weird thing seem a little more legitimate for them. But the fact that he’s sometimes wrong (like when a car doesn’t pick them up and they have to use a freaking rowboat to get to their final destination) makes him seem more credible to us. If Old Guy was trying to say, “Oh yeah, rowing is totes normal?” We’d peg him as evil immediately.
All four mathematicians were supposedly invited by Fermat (Federico Luppi), but it’s not particularly hard to figure out that Fermat is actually a victim himself, partially because he doesn’t act anything like how a host would act, but also because I’ve seen Clue about 18,000 times by now and it seemed pretty obvious to me that he was this movie’s less slimy Mr. Boddy. (Er, Lee Ving’s Mr. Boddy, that is. There are a couple of Mr. Boddys in that movie.) In fact, I think that’s what I’m going to call him from now on — because I don’t use anyone else’s pseudonym in this review, and Fermat should be no exception.
So, here’s how it all goes down: The One Girl, Old Guy, Library, and Bangs all make it to the Room of Doom. Mr. Boddy shows up and acts a little awkwardly for a few minutes before quickly having to leave. He gets a phone call, see, from what he thinks is the hospital, saying something he can’t quite make out about his daughter. Of course, it’s not the hospital at all but Old Guy, who has just snuck out of the room to tamper with Mr. Boddy’s seatbelt. Other people just screw with the break lines or the power steering when they want to sabotage a car, but Old Guy, he’s a creative thinker. He makes it so the seat belt will release some poisonous gas when Mr. Boddy clicks it on. Unfortunately for him (and for us), Mr. Boddy is stupidly suspicious of seat belts, so he drives without one for most of the film.
So, here’s my thing: I don’t actually mind how obvious Mr. Boddy’s innocence is. I do mind how much time is wasted watching him drive around when none of those scenes contribute anything to the main story.
The action is in the Room of Doom. That’s where the real tension is. (Or is supposed to be, anyway.) Watching Mr. Boddy at the gas station isn’t suspenseful because I don’t believe he’s evil. (Nor do I care that deeply about the gas station attendant.) Watching him at the hospital only tells me information that I already know. And watching him drive back to the Room of Doom really isn’t tense because I don’t for one second think this dude’s going to be our Math Heroes’ salvation. It’s a puzzle movie, guys. If anyone’s going to survive it, they’re going to survive by figuring out how to escape, not because some jerk just opened the door for them. That’s a cheat. No one wants that.
So yeah. Nothing Mr. Boddy does changes anything for our Math Heroes — although I suppose the Math Heroes do, indirectly, get Mr. Boddy killed. See, the whole reason Mr. Boddy finally puts on his seatbelt is that he gets pulled over for erratic driving — and he’s driving erratically because he’s stupidly reaching for his ringing phone. (The caller? Library, trying to warn MB that he’s in danger.) Mr. Boddy, who accidentally left his ID behind in the Room of Doom, invites the cop along to verify his story. The cop does this and quickly notices that Mr. Boddy isn’t wearing his seatbelt. Mr. Boddy makes a crack about how people are more likely to die in them, but then relents and puts on the seatbelt, just so they can both pass out and drive off a cliff together.
A. Dying from irony is the very worst way to die. Seriously, I kind of hate it, particularly when it reinforces people’s fears about things that are meant to keep them safe. Yes, I’m lame, I’m aware; deal with it. I take seat belts fairly seriously, and I’d imagine so do a lot of other people who’ve been in head-on car collisions before. There but for the grace of God, and all that. Or really, there but for the grace of manmade safety devices that are far more likely to save you than get you killed. All right, fine, PSA over.
B. Whether you’re a big fan of seat belts or not, when a cop gets in your car — dude, you automatically put it on. I mean, right? The cop’s remarkably chill about the whole thing, too. I mean, he chides Mr. Boddy, sure, leading to their demise, but he’s so relaxed about the issue that I was like, “Wait, are seat belts more like a guideline than an actual rule in Spain?” My brief Google research, however, tells me this is not the case.
C. No matters what I said before, you really can’t blame the Math Heroes for this one because while Mr. Boddy is sort of a tragic figure, he’s also an idiot who can’t drive — and considering his daughter is in a coma because she was hit by a car, you’d think he might be a touch more cognizant of safe driving habits. You know what’s not a safe driving habit? Repeatedly taking your eyes off the road to grope ineffectually for your cell phone whilst in the middle of driving down dark and twisty streets in the middle of the night at full speed ahead. Mr. Boddy could park his car sideways in the middle of the road, and he’d probably be less likely to get hurt. Seriously, everyone in this movie deserves to DIE, and die badly.
Okay. Let me go back to the main story, which — I can’t stress enough — has so little to do with Mr. Boddy. He’s important for setup, yes, but after those first few minutes in the Room of Doom, we really don’t need to see him again.
You know how I said Mr. Boddy accidentally left his wallet behind? Well, once the Room of Doom starts doing its thing, Library sees the wallet and realizes that he accidentally ran down Mr. Boddy’s daughter. He surmises, incorrectly, that this whole thing is an elaborate revenge plot against him, and the other mathematicians are just collateral damage.
The truth, though, is that the Old Guy is seriously pissed at Bangs.
Remember that Big Deal Impossible Math Proof that Bangs solved at the beginning of the movie? Apparently, OG had been trying to solve that his whole life, and he was This Close when Bangs, the young hotshot/condescending slime bucket, managed to do it first. This is what caused the Old Guy’s suicidal ideation — oh wait, I left a part out before. Right, okay, so Bangs wasn’t just on the verge of solving his BDIMP; he had solved it, but before he could defend it — or whatever the proper terminology would be — a Mysterious Someone trashed all his stuff, meaning he couldn’t prove what he’d done and would have to complete his work all over again.
So, when the Old Guy hears about this — and we’ll discuss how that happens in a minute — he rededicates himself to solving the BDIMP and actually manages to do it. But that’s not enough for him; he wants to be the first person to solve it, so he constructs this entire thing as a way of killing off Bangs before he can publish his proof. The whole drama with Library and Mr. Boddy is just a convenient cover. Old Guy plans to have the police come to the exact same conclusion that Library did, that he was the real target of this nightmare and Mr. Boddy the culprit behind it all.
I actually kind of enjoy all this, even if it’s such a ridiculously overelaborate plan and possibly unnecessary to boot. I mean, if Old Guy publishes his proof before Bangs can finish his work, I don’t think it’s going to matter if Bangs whines about it or not — he has no real evidence to back up his claim that he solved it first. And if reading The Calculus Diaries has taught me anything, it’s that mathematicians who published their work when they completed it (instead of dawdling around for no apparent reason, as some did) are the dudes who got credited with Solving Stuff, whether they really solved it first or not.
Here’s the thing, though: Bangs? He never actually solved anything at all. He just bragged about it (mostly to impress Old Guy — oh, how irony strikes again) and then, when it came time to face the music, was forced to trash his own stuff, just so he could have that much-needed extension. Basically, this whole thing has been for nothing. I’m totally okay with that.
I’m far less okay with The One Girl’s Big Secret.
Each character has a big secret, see. That’s generally how these kinds of stories work. Library nearly killed someone, Old Guy is trying to kill someone, and Bangs is a wanker who didn’t actually solve shit. The One Girl’s Big Secret, though, entirely revolves around her vagina and which men in the room have previously inserted their manhood into it.
The answer to that: Bangs and Old Guy. (Library is the only actual stranger in the group.)
It turns out that Bangs and the One Girl used to date. They broke up, though, because he thought she was seeing someone else. Which she was: she ended up playing Steamy Chess with Old Guy online and eventually met him on a boat to do Super Kinky Depraved Things. We never learn exactly what super kinky depraved things they did, but I’m pretty sure she said they were illegal, so maybe farm animals were involved? Whatever, it’s dumb. The whole point of this bullshit backstory is that The One Girl confirms what Old Guy has read but can’t quite believe: that Bangs’s Big Setback really happened. That’s it. That’s her whole purpose in this story. The One Girl is just an additional source on somebody else’s supposed tragedy. The One Girl could be replaced by a fucking newsletter.
Let’s see, what else . . . well, our Three Math Heroes escape after Bangs knocks Old Guy unconscious and Library realizes that there must be a secret way out because OG didn’t plan on dying with them. (The clue to this is in the pseudonyms. Old Guy assigned everyone the names of famous mathematicians who died at the exact same age the Math Heroes are, but Hilbert — OG’s own pseudonym — was several years older than OG when he died.) They barely escape, leaving our Big Bad to get crunched in his own death trap, and row on back to safety.
The movie ends like so: Bangs has grabbed Old Guy’s Big Deal Impossible Math Proof and now faces this ethical dilemma: should he publish it under the Old Guy’s name, letting the bad guy win, or publish it under his own name, which would help him out while being morally wrong. Library solves this dilemma when he does exactly what I said to do and tosses the proof into the lake. Bangs protests that the world needs this math, and Library’s like, “Dude, look around. The world’s still here.” Which I quite like, really.
Then Library and The One Girl make eyes at each other, which I just assume means they’ll hook up because that’s apparently what The One Girl is here for, and the movie ends.
Finally, some last random notes:
A. I assume the librarian who gives Library the clue he needs is actually working with Old Guy all along?
I assumed that from the beginning, actually, and thankfully it’s implied pretty early on — but oddly, it’s never explicitly shown, like I have no idea what Old Guy said to the librarian to get her to go along with this weirdness. (“I just need you to awkwardly work the word “alphabetize” into your conversation, okay? You — what do you like? Starbucks? Snapple? I will find every last hidden bottle of Snapple on the planet if you just help me out here.”)
If it is supposed to be a coincidence, though . . . man. It is terrible. To solve the puzzle, Library needs to organize his numbers by alphabetizing them. His Lightbulb Moment is only achieved when the librarian tells him, “One thing – put back any books you use in alphabetical order.” Like how the hell ELSE would you organize books in the library? So dumb.
B. I can’t decide how I feel about Mr. Boddy accidentally leaving his wallet behind. It’s the only reason Library knows how they’re related, which admittedly doesn’t bother me as much as it initially did, when I thought Old Guy wanted them to discover the wallet and I was like, “Wait, how did he possibly orchestrate that without Mr. Boddy being in on the game?” Ultimately, I doubt OG cares whether our Math Heroes know about Library’s connection to Mr. Boddy or not; that’s all for us, the viewers.
Still, something about the coincidence of this is nagging at me, too. Of course, OG likes coincidences. As he tells
the audience Bangs at the beginning of the movie, “The more you study logic, the more you value coincidence.”
Oh, be quiet, writers.
C. I’m not convinced that Old Guy is a terribly great planner. Like, there have to be easier ways to kill Bangs than this. Think about all the steps OG had to go through here:
Step One: Seduce Enemy’s GF with Masterful Chess Proficiency and Kinky Boat Antics.
Step Two: Make a Detailed Model of the Room of Doom.
Step Three: Properly Furnish the Room of Doom, Complete With Secret Escape.
Step Four: Buy Four Big Presses That Will Slowly Crunch the Room of Doom.
Step Five: Come Up With a Series of Puzzles That Your Victims Will Not Be Able to Solve in the Time Allotted.
Step Six: Find Mathematicians Who Conveniently Died At The Same Age As All Of Your Victims.
Step Seven: Send Invitations to Enemy, Enemy’s Ex-GF, and A Dude Who Has Serious Cause to Hate Fourth Invitee, Other Dude.
Step Eight: Hire Helper to Assist Other Dude With Solving the Puzzle, Since He Clearly Can’t Be Trusted To Do It Himself.
Step Nine: Set Up Your Own Innocence By Talking About Your Weekend Plans With Concerned Friend.
Step Ten: Lead Your Victims to the Room of Doom Without Them Realizing It.
Step Eleven: Leave the Room of Doom Without Anyone Noticing to Sabotage Your Patsy’s Car With Poisonous Gas While Chatting With Him On the Phone.
Step Twelve: Seal Yourself Inside the Room of Doom With the Rest of Your Victims and Enjoy the Bloody Vengeance. BLOODY VENGEANCE!!!!
D. Finally, in case it isn’t clear enough, Bangs is SUCH an asshole. He actually throws down and breaks the PDA that they’re using to submit their answers. Their only chance of stopping the walls from closing in, and he breaks it in a giant temper tantrum.
Bangs, in the whole shepherd, sheep, wolf, cabbage scenario? You are definitely the cabbage. The asshole cabbage.
Oliva: “I won’t fit!”
Pascal: “If your head fits, your body fits.”
Oliva: “Try putting your ass in a helmet!”
Pascal: “The world is as it was.”
Doctor Friend: “You can’t go on like this. You have to get out. I’m speaking as a doctor, not as a friend.”
Hilbert: “You tell me three times a day. Three! I’m speaking as a mathematician, not as a friend.”
Galois: “You think it’ll resist?”
Pascal: “Pressure is unpredictable. It can turn coal into dust or a diamond.”
Hilbert: “Was that Archimedes?”
Hilbert: “I return tapes without rewinding them. I lie in electoral surveys. I take communion without fasting. I pick fruit without wearing plastic gloves. Could anyone hate me for things like that?”
It’s definitely not the worst Bottle Episode Mystery Movie I’ve ever seen (or Quasi Bottle Episode, anyway), and there are some cool moments in it. But The One Girl’s stupid backstory was pretty annoying, and everyone inability to prioritize really took any and all tension out of the movie for me — which, considering I’m somewhat claustrophobic, really shouldn’t have been possible.
Santi Millán, maybe? It’s a toss up between him and Llúis Homar.
Professional jealousy happens to the best of us, but maybe take a few calming breaths before creating an extremely elaborate death trap for your annoying rival? At the very least, don’t hang out inside the death trap. Library figures out that the Big Bad has to be among them because a dude bent on revenge would want to see what’s happening, but you know, you could probably have just installed a camera in the middle of the ceiling that would have given you your voyeuristic jollies while making sure you were never crunched to death by your own sadistic cleverness.
Also don’t wear a seat belt, apparently. Assholes.