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The Laplace's Demon (Fantasia 2017)

The Laplace's Demon begins like a classic 1950's monster B-movie, as a group of co-workers led by boss Isaac (Walter Smorti) travel by boat to an isolated island, answering an invitation from a mysterious, reclusive scientist none of them have met. The island is really just a huge pillar of rock, improbably topped by a mansion that takes up every inch of flat surface. Cell service is naturally out of the question. There's even a storm brewing, insists the boat's captain, Alfred (Simone Moscato), who can't wait to dump his passengers and get home.

Naturally reluctant to be stranded, however, said passengers drag Alfred with them onto the island and into a ridiculously tall elevator. This is the only way in or out of the house, a serious design flaw that their mysterious host views as a feature, not a bug. He's fascinated by the team's work: a computer program that can predict with startling accuracy how many pieces a dropped glass will break into. This sounds like a party trick, but imagine being able to know exactly how and where a building will crack during an earthquake.

Certainly Karl (Silvano Bertolin), the team's physicist, takes the work very seriously, even now trying to refine the program. The others are more inclined to relax on the trip -- Bruno (Simone Valeri), for instance, mostly tells the same story over and over, perhaps trying to impress Sophia (Carlotta Mazzoncini); while Jim Bob (Duccio Giulivi) plays tourist, taking pictures with an old Polaroid. Yes, his name is actually Jim Bob. Roy (Alessandro Zonfrilli) doesn't ever seem to relax, remaining suspicious of the strangely empty house -- for good reason, unsurprisingly.

Their host, you see, informs them via videocassette that they are now all inside his experiment and none of them can leave. Like them, he is studying prediction, though he's taken his studies quite a bit further. A large clockwork model of the house has been pre-programmed to show where each of them will be at any moment by moving white chess pawns, and this model is so far frighteningly accurate. Then danger arrives in the form of the black Queen, and suddenly there's a lot more at stake than scientific bragging rights.

The Laplace's Demon is real, or at least a real theory: if a powerful enough intellect could know the exact position of every atom in the universe at any given moment, every past or future position of those atoms could be calculated. It's as much a philosophical exercise as it is mathematical: How much room is there for things like free will in such a model? To put it in terms of the movie, if you do something unpredictable with the hope of keeping yourself safe from the Queen, is that action truly unpredictable? Is randomness real?

But the film also doesn't overthink itself, thankfully. The use of the model and the chess pieces seems like it should be awkward but actually works beautifully -- a surprising amount of suspense can be derived from the clockwork performing its steady, impersonal duties. There's an excellent build of tension as both pawns and characters disappear one by one, and the conversations on the independence of human thought never weigh things down. Under the monster-movie facade, it's an intelligent film that doesn't talk down to the audience even as it skilfully plays with the viewers' minds. Sometimes things are only impossible because we think they are.

Image: 
Quick! How many pieces has this glass broken into?

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