The Tesseract (2003) is based on the Alex Garlard novel of the same name, but I sincerely hope the book reads better than the movie. It's not all bad, of course, but it's certainly a film with its fair share of problems. The film opens with a shot of Jonathan Rhys-Meyers (Velvet Goldmine, Bend It Like Beckham) doing his best impression of "Jim" from 28 Days Later (also written by Garland), as he lies disoriented in a hotel room. The subsequent scene (and many scenes following it) would fare much better if director Oxide Pang hadn't chosen to use every cliched music video editing trick in the book. Combine this with a heavy dose of Matrix-inspired effects and the reverse chronological storytelling of Memento, and you've got a film that you think you've seen before but probably wish you hadn't.
A tesseract is defined as "the four-dimensional equivalent of a cube", though you'd never know that if the film didn't tell you directly. Of course, you could take the basic premise of the movie and twist it to fit the definition: four strangers with completely different backgrounds are only linked by their location: a sleazy hotel in Thailand. These four people could represent each side of the cube, which...ah, screw it. I sound like a film student at a trendy coffee shop. Instead, let's take a look at the film itself: what works, what doesn't, and why it doesn't.
To be fair, The Tesseract does have a few things that work in its favor, including the film's terrific use of atmosphere. The run-down hotel used in the film really seemed like the perfect place for such a group of strangers to come together, and the use of dramatic tension worked on occasion. As much as it's being beaten to death, I also liked the use of the reverse chronological storytelling, as the film's events wouldn't seem as important if told in a straightforward fashion. Additionally, a few of the performances of the "four strangers" were decent, including that of the young bellhop (Alexander Rendel). Last but not least, I thought several of the action sequences were well-done, and the bullet-impact effects were sharp and dynamic. Sadly, that's where the good news ends.
As mentioned before, this film has a habit of making things far too confusing. Having not read the original novel myself, I would hope that Alex Garland did a far better job of organizing his information. Here, we're left with a string of events that seem far too coincidental, while visual clues about future (past?) events have all the subtlety of a Michael Bay film. Some of the other characters also leave much to be desired, especially in the cartoonish performances of Rhys-Meyers and several other key players. The film also has a tendency to crawl along at times, thanks to the often-lackluster pacing and several scenes that should have been left on the cutting room floor. Last but not least is the overindulgence of special effects, especially early on in the film. Speaking of overindulgence, I'll throw out another metaphor: there's enough shaky camerawork during this film to make The Bourne Supremacy look like a Yasujiro Ozu film. It all adds up to a confusing 96 minutes that only manage to entertain on a handful of occasions. If you're looking for a clever psychological thriller that'll blow you out of your seat, trust me: look elsewhere.
Although I've actually been impressed with the bulk of Sundance's back catalogue on DVD, it's safe to say that The Tesseract wasn't my cup of tea. For everything that it managed to do right, there were at least two things it did wrong. Even with a few bright spots, there's not enough here to make this film even a mild recommendation. The DVD itself also proves to be lackluster, offering little more than a passable technical presentation. If you've already made up your mind about The Tesseract, I'd imagine you're done reading. For everyone else: let's see how this one stacks up, shall we?
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality:
While most modern releases can be expected to have near-flawless image quality, there were a number of issues that held back The Tesseract. Like the film itself, the quality varied greatly during its 96-minute runtime. Although many of the outdoor scenes looked bright and clear, many of the indoor scenes were very poorly lit and hard on the eyes (the constant darkness of the hotel didn't help things either). There were many instances of flicker during pitch-black scenes, and a noticeable amount of grain to boot. Still, I can't be too hard on it: many of these problems were most likely due to the source material, and this wasn't exactly a big-budget production to begin with. Even taking this into account, I still can't give the video quality much more than an average rating.
The audio fared better, though there were still a few occasions where it fell a little short. In several of the early scenes (especially one in a strip club), the dialogue was poorly mixed and really fought for attention; unfortunately, it usually lost. This could have been slightly remedied with the inclusion of optional subtitles, but there weren't any included in this release. For the most part, though, this English 5.1 presentation was above-average; several of the more dynamic action scenes packed a good deal of punch and directionality. Overall, I'm sure this is the best the film has ever sounded.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging:
The overall presentation was simple but got the job done, highlighted by nice anamorphic widescreen menus and smooth navigation. The 96-minute film has been divided into 16 chapters, and no layer change was detected during playback. The bonus features (such as they are) have been presented in non-anamorphic widescreen. Packaging consisted of a standard black keepacse with a promotional insert for other Sundance releases on DVD.
Sadly, it always seems like the movies that really need extras don't get them. That's not to say that a few featurettes or a commentary would have made me love the film, but it would have really helped me to understand certain parts of it. The Tesseract really can't stand up on its own, and only getting the English and Japanese Trailers and a few other Sneak Previews didn't really enhance the viewing experience much. Unless all the planets are in alignment and you're head-over-heels in love with this movie, it's not worth a blind buy at the $27 retail.
It's a rare case when I can't find much to appreciate in a film, but the only thing that remotely held any interest here was decent atmosphere and a bit of eye candy. Still, that alone can't save The Tesseract. With a bloated plot and head-scratching execution, the picture aims high but misses the mark; this results in a confusing film that does little more than tread water for 90 minutes. While the DVD offers a questionable technical presentation, it's doubtful that the film's looked much better in any format. If The Tesseract were widely available at most video rental outlets, I might encourage viewers to give this a weekend look despite its drawbacks. If you can borrow a copy, you might end up liking it more than I did. For most viewers, though, this release isn't worth tracking down. Skip It.
Randy Miller III is mild-mannered art instructor hailing from Harrisburg, PA. To fund his DVD viewing habits, he also works on freelance graphic design and illustration projects. In his free time, Randy enjoys slacking off, general debauchery, and writing things in third person.