A group of people are invited to a deserted island. They’ve never met the owner. One by one, each person turns up dead. Il Demone di Laplace (The Laplace’s Demon, Giordano Giulivi, 2017) isn’t a remake of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, but it’s easy to be caught by the similarities.
Making its world premiere at Fantasia Festival in July, The Laplace’s Demon reads more like a challenge than a copycat. And Then There Were None designed ten murders that retained their inevitability through a growing awareness by the targets to fight back.The Laplace’s Demon lowers its sights to eight victims but otherwise wrestles much loftier goals: a mathematical formula that can predict exactly how a person will behave, down to the smallest line of dialogue or movement around a room.
And Then There Were None could be flexible about how its murders were committed. The Laplace’s Demon is about showing off how premeditated murder can be, with a black and white setting uniquely qualified to sell the impossible situation these scientists find themselves in. The exterior is Gothic eye candy, a mansion set on the top of a hill, surrounded by fog and storm clouds, but inside the building is an awful hodgepodge of modern and older sights. Music is played on a phonograph while recordings are left on VHS, and a metal lift gets an upgrade with armored doors. It’s impossible to get your bearings when the technology isn’t consistent and that adds to the terror of their circumstances.
Having come to the island under the pretense of discussing their own experiment, these are scientists who are familiar with predicting physical events from their work trying to predict the number of pieces glass will shatter into when dropped. A docile enough experiment when applied to cups, with a 2% chance of error, the morality changes drastically with humans. And Then Were None posed the possibility of justice by making its victims murderers. The Laplace’s Demon does not.
The film’s crowning achievement is its set piece – a model sized recreation of the mansion, where chess pieces stand in for each scientist, traveling the model in real time. Computers can be hacked and tampered but a machine that turns on gears, in a predesigned pattern, is much more imposing. Like Houdini and his escape tricks, this is a film that understands how to lay its cards on the table and put the best brains on the job, trying to tear holes in the model’s authority. Debunking its death sentence leaves them highly motivated, but no better equipped to succeed.
Another quirk of the model is how the film uses it to stay in one place for most of the runtime (amazingly the film was shot entirely in a basement). After establishing the model’s accuracy with how people move in the room, it’s trusted to tell the truth about what’s happening in other rooms. Instead of the camera following when somebody runs out, it stays on the model to watch events transpire there. Many of the characters do the same. Their assumption is a pawn removed is a colleague dead but, demonstrating a strange lack of scientific inquiry, nobody ever tries to make sure.
The scientists lose their curiosity but viewers will not, as there’s plenty to debate in the different arguments the movie raises. For a film that wants to us to believe in an infallible formula, there’s also talk about nothing being impossible unless you give up. The tone isn’t inspirational, so let’s not mislead, but the contradictions are included with intention.
Ending the movie was always going to be a challenge and, for the direction the screenplay writers Giordano Giulivi and Duccio Giulivi (though Silvano Bertolin and Ferdinando D’Urbano are also credited on the synopsis and treatment) decide to take, the execution doesn’t falter. It’s more whether it’s the direction you would’ve liked to see play out.
After standing by while a glass fell so many times during their experiment, the urgency to catch a glass later marks the change living the experiment has had on the scientists. The film cuts to the error screen from their simulation and it’s a sight they used to obsess over. Now perfection isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.