Sunday, October 6, 2013

Pontypool (2008)

Pontypool is a curious film that is as fascinating as it is confusing. It plays out very much like a viral outbreak disaster movie told exclusively from the perspective of a talk radio host in the wintry Canadian town that serves as ground zero. But to leave it at that would do injustice to the originality of its premise. Explaining it is kind of a spoiler, I think, but I can't really talk about this movie without addressing it. So, if you want to figure it out for yourself, go watch the movie first, then come back. Otherwise, read on, and what you learn might just intrigue you enough to want to give this movie a watch.

The "twist" here is that the outbreak is not biological, but linguistic in nature. Think of the figurative sense of the term "viral", as applied to cultural memes (especially prevalent in the internet age). Now imagine that there were some way in which a virus could spread via the transfer of information, so that certain words could become "infected", causing your brain to sort of scramble upon processing the meaning of one of those infected words. It's a crazy premise, and I'll be the first to admit that it's not entirely plausible, but at the same time, it's a fascinating thought experiment.

Meanwhile, the fact that the story revolves around a talk radio host seems to create the potential for some kind of allegory about talk radio (and related forms of pulp/news infotainment programming) as a medium that could, on the one hand, transmit deadly information to public consumers (in the sense of George A. Romero's subtext in Night of the Living Dead about consumer culture turning people into mindless "zombies"), and, on the other, be the salvation of mankind. But if Pontypool takes advantage of that potential, it's not at all clear to me what sort of commentary it chooses to make.

Aside from all that, even if you don't go too deep and instead take the movie at face value, it's still a very gripping story. The atmosphere is tense and suspenseful, and while you feel at times that you want to go outside and see what's really going on, the movie's dedication to stick with the confused and claustrophobic point of view of the lonely radio broadcasters is unfaltering. But the characters we're stuck with are, if slightly quirky, compelling portraits of empathetic individuals caught in the middle of an unprecedented tragedy. I found it rather ironic to discover firsthand how these people at the radio station, who are charged with providing the local public with information, are themselves less knowledgeable of what the hell is going on than the people who are out there in the midst of it.

This is certainly not a conventional "zombie" outbreak film, but therein lies its strength. Then again, its embrace of the absurd may leave you somewhat unsatisfied with the comprehensive answers it fails to give. But like a philosophical discussion that raises questions and resolves little, leaving you to wonder (as you wander your mind), you might find it to be a clever and fascinating little piece of film.

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