Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Questions, Questions, We All Got Questions [Review: Exam]

“There is one question before you, and one answer is required. If you try to communicate with myself or the guard, you will be disqualified. If you spoil your paper, intentionally or accidentally, you will be disqualified. If you choose to leave this room for any reason, you will be disqualified. Any questions?”

Eight young men and women are escorted into an examination room by an armed guard. They are smartly dressed but some have mysterious cuts or bruises. They are candidates for a highly prized job and the exam is the final stage of the selection procedure. The invigilator stresses that the unknown employer is so powerful that within these walls they can make their own rules. However the penalty for breaking a rule is not execution but simply a bus ride home – and failure.

Stuart Hazeldine’s film Exam is set in a cleverly designed concrete bunker which is reminiscent of Cube, as is the ethnically-diverse group of characters with complementary skills and the philosophical undertone to the dialogue. Exam does not rely on Cube’s cheesewire-trap shocks, although the setting is never “safe” and the danger escalates as the LED clock ticks down. The one-room concept is strictly adhered to – apart from the opening sequence in a washroom, the camera is entirely limited to the exam chamber itself and about two metres of coridoor outside the obligatory sliding door: this works in the film’s favour – a location that initially appears bleak turns out to have secrets and surprises behind every feature.

Exam is based on your own personal examination nightmare, and predictably the candidates turn their papers over to find that they are blank*: happily this is just the opening gambit in a series of puzzles, twists, red herrings and trust-betrayal dilemmas. The key is in the rules, or rather what the rules do not say. For instance there’s no rule against communication between the candidates, so they can cooperate to work out the nature of the question – but the same rules also leave open some interesting ways of disadvantaging each other. The cast of Exam try to resolve their situation within these rules rather than escape them so Exam is not science fiction.

Adar Beck as "Brunette" in Exam

Cinematically this is a tense and extremely watchable film. Exam is tightly scripted and does a very good job of gradually hinting at each candidate’s background as well as the nature of the mysterious employer and the state of the world outside. Colin Salmon is perfectly cast as the suave invigilator and Adar Beck is particularly good as a psychologist who turns out to have previously worked for the company – the others turn on her as they suspect that the exam is some kind of experiment. The ending is clean, resolving the mystery firmly and fairly: it’s well done but sometimes, as in Cube or, say, Blade Runner, it’s good to leave a little ambiguity.

*For those readers whose exam nightmare involves finding that instead of a paper on your desk there is a slice of black forest gateau, my condolences – but watch out for the sequel.


Mini Air Conditioner Compressor said...

Lovely work! I'm definitely going to visit the blog frequently.

Sci-Fi Gene said...

Why thank you, Captain Vague Compliment ;)