The simple answer to the question “what is an aseptic white room thriller” (AWRT) is Cube, Vincenzo Natali’s cult Canadian sci-fi movie from 1997. More abstractly, it’s a film that takes place on a single set, usually white though not necessarily. Lighting will be clean, clinical, fairly devoid of shadow. Soundtrack music will be scarce or absent. As for sound design, a background hum of air-conditioning is standard. Clanking, the whooshing of doors, “noises off”.
It’s the plot that is most definitive. In the AWRT no one really knows what’s going on. Typically the film opens with the characters who don’t know each other waking up somewhere far from home, to find that off-screen somewhere, in the bowels of the spaceship they’re on, or in a dark corner of the warehouse they’re in, something is out to get them.
Banding together is the sensible option and it’s usually the person who is most vocally against this course of action who gets it (whatever “it” is) first.
Alien has elements of the Aseptic White Room Thriller, though in the purest manifestation of the form we never get to see the antagonist, the creature. Because the creature is, in effect, other people. And if that’s tickling a memory of Jean-Paul Sartre’s “hell is other people”, then you’ve arrived at the modern source of all Aseptic White Room Thrillers, Sartre’s Huis Clos, a vision of hell in which three people are punished by being locked up with each other for eternity, where they must struggle not to become an object of someone else’s consciousness, the great existential burden.
Put another way, Sartre was a grumpy bugger who didn’t get on with other people.
Some examples of the Aseptic White Room Thriller:
Cube (1997, dir: Vincenzo Natali)
Seven people of various classes and backgrounds wake up in a hi-tech cube consisting of white room off white room. Periodically reconfiguring itself to lethal effect, the cube forces the initially unco-operative bunch into “pull together or die” survival mode.
Before checking out Cube, it is worth being aware that the acting is very ropy, the script is possibly even worse. But the simplicity of its premise, the starkness of its judgment, the implacability of whatever it is that’s doing whatever it is that it’s doing makes for a highly flavoured, and highly influential piece of sci-fi.
Moon (2009, dir: Duncan Jones)
Moon looks to me as if Duncan Jones, son of David Bowie, was halfway through watching the George Clooney version of Solaris and thought “nah, I could do better than that.” And that’s what he’s done with this brilliantly told story of the lone astronaut (Sam Rockwell) up on the moon who discovers he’s not alone at all.
Kubrick’s 2001 provides some of the look, and the inspiration for the faintly mocking computer, voiced here by Kevin Spacey. And Alien provides the idea of the human very much the subordinate to the company’s systems.
All this wrapped up in a story that like Russian dolls within dolls, or turtles standing on the backs of turtles, goes down and down and down towards infinity.
Antiviral (2012, dir: Brandon Cronenberg)
Brandon, son of David, Cronenberg updates dad’s “body horror” shockers with the story of a lab rat who steals a bit of DNA from the facility where he works. The DNA is from someone rich and famous and the lab where he works sells, among other things, cold sores of the rich and famous. Because in Brandon Cronenberg’s world the great unwashed will do anything to get close to a celebrity, including infecting themselves with their herpes.
Antiviral is a grungy satire rather than a philosophical examination of the friability of the individual, though the sense of isolation, the clinical setting and Cronenberg’s expert fostering of a sense of dread all bathe the movie in the chill glow of the Aseptic White Room Thriller.
The Facility (2012, dir: Ian Clark)
A low-budget British chiller about a gaggle of disparate guys and gals who have all signed up for a weekend of drug testing at some remote clinic. Things, obviously, are going to go wrong, and they do.
It’s the way that this bunch of largely self-obsessed young people unknown to each are thrown together that is most reminiscent of Cube, but there’s also the sight of a director taking the very scantest of storylines and making something compelling and tense out of it.
If that doesn’t mark Ian Clark out as someone to watch I don’t know what does.
Panic Button (2011, dir: Chris Crow)
Four winners of a competition run by a social networking site meet for the first time in the VIP lounge in an airport. Before long they are in a private jet being taken, ostensibly, to a holiday destination. Of course they’re going to no such place.
Shot on one camera by the look of things, then edited on a dying laptop and overdubbed with music seemingly grabbed at random from a fourth-rate music library, Panic Button doesn’t have production values going for it. But it does have purity and simplicity. And throwing a bunch of people together and then subjecting them to psychological torture – which is what the movie does – at 35,000 feet (or however high private jets go) is a nice high-concept touch.
The film falls apart spectacularly in its final reveal – which also knocks back its AWRT rating a bit – but much leg-knotting fun has been had on the way.
Pontypool (2008, dir: Bruce McDonald)
A thoroughly gripping low-budget thriller set pretty much in the one room of a radio station, where a former big noise in the DJ world is starting on his first day at a tiny local radio station, some terrible disgrace having busted him down to private.
One room, two people, I think it’s three by the time that Dr Mendez turns up. He’s the frankly bizarre doctor who first voices the theory which might explain all the weirdness that’s been building up as the day has progressed.
Pontypool (the name is Canadian, not Welsh) is one of the more out-there manifestations of the zombie movie, with a high concept so strange that it’s worth waiting for. And its AWRT trappings – a few people, a single room, banding together, a hidden menace – only add to the sense of bated expectation.
The Killing Room (2009, dir: Jonathan Liebesman)
There are famous names in this chiller, a loose mix of Cube, the Big Brother TV series, a bit of Bourne, even a hint of the British 1960s spy series The Avengers.
Peter Stormare plays Mother (that’s the Avengers‘ bit), the freakish scientist delegating rookie psychologist Chloe Sevigny to go over the data of experiments which have just finished, experiments which look very like the Stanford Experiment (Wikipedia explanation here) into the inclination of human beings to obey orders.
Except the experiments might not be over, meaning Sevigny is stuck in a big white space while some mad twisted nut pushes her buttons. The Killing Room isn’t perfect but its big reveal, when it comes, is worth hanging on for.
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© Steve Morrissey 2013