Monday, March 4, 2024

Movie Review (FCEPR 2023): ‘The Universal Theory is a Cluttered Combination of Film Noir and Sci-Fi


Director: Timm Kröger
Writers: Roderick Warich and Timm Kröger
Stars: Jan Bulow, Olivia Ross, Hanns Zischler

Synopsis: The year of 1962. A physics congress in the Alps. An Iranian guest. A mysterious pianist. A bizarre cloud formation in the sky and a booming mystery under the mountain. THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING. A quantum mechanical thriller in black and white.


Timm Kröger blends past and present with old and new cinematic aesthetics in his latest work, The Universal Theory (Die Theorie Von Allem). Both in its ideas and stylistic choices, sci-fi and film noir are combined with the modern narrative obsession of the multiverse to create an oddly fascinating yet ultimately cluttered project. 

For a couple of years now, the multiverse has been a notion that everybody has been obsessed with, and there’s some understanding of that craze. There are many directions that concept can travel. You can center it around a doomed love story, a dangerous escapade through the various galaxies, or even an action-drama-comedy picture about a mother and daughter. The multiverse can serve as a guide for very interesting stories. However, rather unfortunately, it seems like the idea has been running dry due to its poor and lazy use, with most directors relying on the same old cinematic design and themes. We have grown used to such things, as the same happened with time travel in the past decades. There’s always this fascination with a sci-fi-related conception that everybody wants to get their hands on, losing steam as the years go by. 

Right out of nowhere, Timm Kröger arrives with The Universal Theory, which finds a compelling use of the multiverse craze. The German filmmaker literally uses the intrigue of scientific belief as the core of the film’s web-like combinations of genre (sci-fi, film noir, romance) and tone (claustrophobic, gloomy, and occasionally intimate). He doesn’t focus much on the theories or mechanics of this topic. Instead, Kröger prefers to dwell within the film’s cinematic inspirations. In a way, that weird concoction does service to its curious demeanor as well as diminishes its overall coherence – both drawing the viewer to seek the film out and leaving them at a distance upon finishing it. This tale is about tunnels underneath the Swiss Alps that make people travel through time and maybe (or not) lovers stuck in this array of mysterious happenings. It is a mess, but at least one worth watching.

The Universal Theory begins in 1974, when we see Johannes Leinert (Jan Bulow) being interviewed on a German television show for his new book, ‘The Theory of Everything’. He is trying to explain the logistics of the book and its multiverse topics to the crowd and guests but to no success. Everyone is taking it as a joke, seeing his work as a tale of fiction rather than the “true story” it is based on. So, Johannes decides to cut the interview short and leave the program, ending with a message dedicated to a woman named Karin, whom he’s been seeking for ages. There’s some sort of odd tension both in the studio and in the film’s atmosphere after his decision to leave, one that creates intrigue on what exactly he is referring to and whether or not his story is true. 

After this, the film’s setting switches to twelve years earlier, changing the look from color to stunning monochrome. Johannes is preparing to leave his home for a couple of weeks with this doctoral advisor, Dr. Julius Strathen (Hanns Zischler), to a scientific congress in the Swiss Alps, where an Iranian scientist is going to deliver a lecture about an astonishing new subject, relating to quantum mechanics, that will change how we perceive life as a whole. Dr. Strathen is quite stern and very honest about everything; he can be perceived as a grump occasionally, but the man just wants a break and the best for Johannes. During the train ride to Switzerland, he encounters one of his past colleagues, Professor Blumberg (Gottfried Breitfuß), who is the opposite of Strathen personality-wise. Blumberg is charismatic and comical, indulging in drinks and drugs to make his stay at the conference a more enjoyable one. 

Strathen can’t stand him; hence, he tells Johannes to stay away from him so he can focus on his paper. Johannes is excited about this new experience and to see how his thesis on parallel universes holds its weight. However, things don’t go as planned, as the notable scientist doesn’t arrive at the conference, canceling the event in the mountains and Johannes’ manuscript is riddled with notes by Dr. Strathen questioning his research. In addition, he has found himself distracted by a piano player named Karin (Olivia Ross). During their first encounter, Johannes states that he has seen her but can’t recall exactly where. At first, she doesn’t seem interested in him and the probability of them meeting prior to the conference. But, as the mysteries begin to entangle with one another, the two start to connect, for better or worse. 

This leads Johannes into a web of mysteries that involve avalanches, weird cloud formations, brutal murders, and a multiverse portal. Timm Kröger uses sci-fi as the catalyst for his mysteries but relies on film noir to develop the story and the characters. It feels like The Third Man, yet with a plot that revolves around parallel universes. The film has a slightly original concept but, at the very least (and most importantly), feels fresh and innovative with its narrative playfulness. The German filmmaker is bold and dedicated, crafting plenty of intrigue in its first act to keep its momentum going for the following two. You question where the film is going. This isn’t because you are frustrated; it is because you’re anxious to see where it is heading. The curiosity of its narrative webbing grows stronger as new characters are introduced into the scene. 

That feeling, unfortunately, doesn’t last long. The second half of The Universal Theory becomes a mish-mash of rushed concepts put one on top of the other. Boldly so, Kröger puts all his ideas onto the table and sees what sticks. And all of them do so individually. The problem is that collectively, they don’t work as planned. Kröger becomes so enamored with the concept that he forcefully wants to connect everything, no matter the cost of its narrative coherence. As Johannes dives deeper into the rabbit hole of potential space-time travel to uncover what exactly is occurring, the viewer grows less engrossed – the interest diminishing rapidly compared to the first act. It is an exercise in doing too much when less is more. While I still admire the ambitiousness of Kröger’s direction, and I believe that The Universal Theory will find its noir pulp audience, there’s too much clutter to fix what was previously fascinating. 

Grade: C

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