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What you see is (not) what you get – ‘Sensation’

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So much of how we engage with the world around us is defined by our senses. It is only through them – sight, sound, taste, touch, smell – that we can identify what’s around us. The absence of one or more is keenly felt, but the others can still contribute to giving us a window on the world.

But what if you couldn’t trust those senses to tell you the truth? What if what you saw, heard, touched – what if those things were other than what your brain was telling you?

“Sensation,” a new science fiction thriller from writer/director Martin Grof, explores that possibility via a mystery that defies you to believe the evidence of your own eyes. It’s a challenge to the very concept of the validity of personal perception. Lofty ideas, to be sure, albeit ones that aren’t always executed quite as cleanly as one might hope.

The premise is solid and the look is appealing – there are moments of impressive visual style. Unfortunately, there’s a sense of unnecessary convolution that mars much of the film, with the filmmakers prioritizing maintaining a sense of mystery above all else … including consistent narrative coherence.

Andrew (Eugene Simon, “Kill Ben Lyk”) is a young man working as a postal carrier in London. He’s long wondered about his heritage – his dad has always been out of the picture and his mom doesn’t seem that interested in helping either – so he reaches out and connects with the geneticist Dr. Marinus (Alastair G. Cumming, “Crash Test Aglae”). Unfortunately, the DNA testing uncovers no matches.

But it also uncovers the fact that Andrew is … special.

He is possessed of a rare genetic mutation, one that means that his sensory receptors are far more powerful than those of normal people. Reluctantly, he allows himself to be sent off to a special school of sorts, led by the enigmatic Nadia (Emily Wyatt, “Sacrilege”) and May (Jennifer Martin, “Behind the Line: Escape to Dunkirk”). Along with his fellow students/patients/subjects/whatever, Andrew begins training to harness his talents – talents that could allow him to not only increase his own perception, but control that of others.

But as Andrew spends more and more time training at the institute, some questions start to arise. Not everything he has been told is adding up, but how can you truly know what’s real when you’re in a place where someone might be controlling every aspect of what you perceive?

As the stakes are raised again and again by the mysterious machinations of Nadia and May – along with the behind-the-scenes string-pulling of Dr. Marinus – Andrew is no longer sure who he can trust, a feeling only exacerbated by the spotty and fraught communications with his mother. And as the training accelerates to its unclear conclusion, Andrew is forced to reckon with the simple fact that he can no longer be 100% sure of what is real and what isn’t … and there are those with their own motivations who are more than happy to let him linger in his confusion.

“Sensation” is a film that, perhaps, isn’t quite as smart as it wants you to think it is. Having one’s perception controlled by an outside force – and the existential and metaphysical questions that said control might raise – is an interesting premise, one that could prove quite engaging with in-depth exploration. Unfortunately, “Sensation” never quite gets there, contenting itself to be a sort of off-brand version of “The Matrix” with a dash of “X-Men.” As far as this film is concerned, expressing the ideas is enough, leaving us to skip along the surface without plumbing the depths.

That’s not to say that it’s all bad. As I said, the central premise has a lot of potential. And there are some legitimately striking screen pictures scattered throughout. Grof proves apt at the building of tension, though it occasionally feels as though things get ratcheted up just for the sake of doing so, leading to unsatisfying deflation rather than strong follow-through. Still, it’s a pretty good-looking movie; there’s just a bit too much unearned navel-gazing for my taste.

The narrative twists are overwrought as well; too many dekes and feints leave the viewer exhausted and considerably less invested in the outcome. By the time we find out what is “really” happening – assuming we ever actually do find out – we’ve checked out, having mostly lost any connection we might have had.

As far as the performances go? I’m actually not sure. Simon is fine, if perhaps a little over his head. He’s giving it his all, but he never manages to look like he’s comfortable in his own skin; he spends much of his time looking mildly stunned and/or aggrieved. Cumming is flamboyantly weird in a way that makes it seem as though he’s in a completely different movie than everyone else. Wyatt spends the whole time with an utter lack of affect. It’s a bold choice – not a good one, but definitely a bold one. Martin is OK, but she too comes off as just a little out of sync. Deliberate? Perhaps, but it still doesn’t work. The rest of the cast muddles through, though none of them have a whole lot on which to hang their respective hats.

“Sensation” wants to be a deep movie. And at first glance, it is a deep movie. But spend even a little time on closer examination and those depths rapidly become shallower and shallower until we’re left splashing in puddles. Ultimately, the only sensation you’ll get from this film is mild disappointment.

[2 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 19 April 2021 11:05

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