In the right hands, sci-fi thrillers don’t need a huge budget or a bevy of special effects to tell a tense, thought-provoking story. Director Eric Schultz’s MINOR PREMISE accomplishes a great deal with its minimalist approach to the genre. Clever direction, tight editing, an intelligent script, and engrossing performances make this story about a troubled scientist who experiments on himself a winning mind-bender that will satisfy fans of Primer, Memento, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Dr. Ethan Kochar (Sathya Sridharan) is a celebrated neuroscientist working in the shadow of his late father. He has already succeeded in isolating and extracting memories, but Ethan wants to push his research further by isolating different aspects of the personality in order to create the ideal self. When one of Ethan’s students questions whether such a pursuit is ethical, Ethan tries to justify it by positing that such a breakthrough could lead to a machine that eliminates PTSD or cures opioid addiction. As the story unravels, though, it becomes clear that Ethan’s true motivations aren’t quite so altruistic.
MINOR PREMISE’s success hinges on Sridharan’s masterful performance. The first half of the film primarily consists of Ethan gazing at computer screens and dictating research notes to himself, but Sridharan is so engaging and fascinating to watch that he holds the viewer’s interest the entire time. After Ethan manages to isolate ten different sections of his psyche, he begins cycling through them in a nuanced and suspenseful examination of identity and consciousness. Sridharan essentially has to play ten different roles at this point, and he handles them all with impressive skill. Some of the sections can be quite terrifying, foreshadowing the darker turn that the film will soon take. Other sections provide expertly timed insights into the lighter side of Ethan’s personality — the version of Ethan classified as “Euphoria” has a brief one-man rave in the middle of his home lab, and this weird and delightful moment provides the perfect respite from the heaviness of the rest of the film.
We all have parts of ourselves that frighten or disgust us, and Ethan has to face those aspects of himself head-on as he reviews footage of each section of his psyche taking control of his body. Complicating matters even further, Ethan’s research partners Malcolm (the always-magnetic Dana Ashbrook) and Alli (Paton Ashbrook, Dana’s niece) come to check on him as he spirals out of control due to his self-experimentation. Ethan tries to send Malcolm away, resenting him for his friendship with Ethan’s father and sneering at what he considers to be Malcolm’s paltry contributions to the project. Ethan welcomes Alli’s help, though: they are ex-lovers and Ethan trusts her to deal with his increasingly fractured self. It is strikingly poignant to see the different versions of Ethan interact with someone he used to love (and clearly still does). Alli serves as a mirror in which the audience sees the reflection of the old Ethan: her joy, sorrow, and fear over each new section of his psyche reveal almost as much about his character as Sridharan’s performance does.
The suspenseful plot becomes even more nail-biting as Ethan reveals that they are working with a ticking clock: not all of the sections of his psyche play well together, and he and Alli must take action to reintegrate his whole self before it’s too late. The final minutes of the film are incredibly tense, and while the denouement may not come as much of a surprise to viewers, that doesn’t make it any less satisfying. MINOR PREMISE is a chilling examination of what constitutes the self: are we simply a combination of memories, beliefs, and personality traits, or are we something more? If you manipulate a person’s consciousness to take away pieces of that puzzle, is the person remaining still who they once were? This smart sci-fi thriller doesn’t give viewers easy answers, nor does it need a huge budget to make its mark as a clever genre entry. The captivating performances and sharp script are more than enough to create an intriguing and unsettling look at the dangers of dissecting the unknowable.
MINOR PREMISE will be available in theaters, virtual cinemas, and Digital & On-Demand tomorrow, December 4, 2020.