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Friday, May 24, 2024
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Photo Courtesy of "The Universal Theory"

‘The Universal Theory’ blends alpine melancholy with European noir, quantum mechanics

This 2023 entry to the Wisconsin Film Festival feels ripped from the 1960s.

Ripped straight from the 1960s, “The Universal Theory” is first and foremost a movie about atmosphere.

The film is shot in black-and-white Cinemascope, which accentuates the grandeur of its alpine setting. Expressionist lighting, matte backgrounds and precise camera movements evoke the likes of Alfred Hitchcock and his precursors. Uncertainty hangs in the air and envelops our characters like the grayscale clouds of fog and snow.

It’s a fitting backdrop for Johannes, a bright physics student in 1962 Europe, as he is invited by the acclaimed Dr. Strathen to join a physics symposium in the Swiss Alps. Strathen dismisses Johannes’ budding dissertation — apparent proof of worlds parallel to our own — as the fantasies of a novice. Yet Johannes’ possibly revolutionary theory captures the attention of Dr. Blumberg, an older, Nobel-winning drunkard whom Strathen dislikes.

Johannes’ trip soon takes a mind-bending turn after the death and apparent re-appearance of Dr. Blumberg followed by that of other guests to the Swiss hotel, and the enigmatic and inconsistent affections of a woman he meets who seems to know far too much about Johannes.

When it comes to the story, precise plot beats are less important than Johannes’ growing sense of confusion and desperation. There’s an ever-growing mystery, but you’re not really here to solve it. Instead, you’re here alongside Johannes to experience the uncanny occurrences that science can’t quite explain — except perhaps his physics dissertation.

Like a fair number of noir films, the middle does drag in a way that teeters the line between slow burn and over-indulgent, but “The Universal Theory” still builds to a truly phenomenal climax in a cave deep within the Alps. 

The film is somewhat unique in its focus on characters in academia, which, despite succumbing to the trope of “main character is studying the very thing that happens to him in the movie,” fits the themes of the tale. 

For one thing, the film follows Johannes as his curiosity gets the best of him. It’s his academic mind — the obsession with truth and stability, the endless search for answers — that consumes him in the face of the unknown. Much of his plight could be avoided if he simply left everything alone, but that’s never an option worth entertaining for Johannes.

What’s more, the film plays upon the omnipresent drive in academia to make a name for oneself. The young incessantly look to the future, waiting for the day where they will be published, will be regarded, will mean something. Blumberg jokingly remarks Johannes is “so young and already so unknown.” 

In this is the flip side of the coin: the elders of the field who incessantly look to the past. Ultimately, life must be dedicated to one pursuit, a setup which inevitably breeds regret. Blumberg’s Nobel Prize is the afterthought of a younger man, overshadowed by the weight of how his talent was employed for the Nazis two decades prior.

Contained in the yearning of both sides is a fixation on all the things that could be, on all the alternate selves one could embody in one world or another. Therein lies the philosophy behind the science of quantum mechanics: Johannes’ life is a waveform, a superposition of possibilities. Every action narrows the future and crystallizes Johannes’ path, but the knowledge of these possibilities remains.

This is the true root of Johannes’ desperation. He’s surrounded by pasts and futures that are at once present and unknowable — both possible and impossible — and  the line between truth and imagination blurs. 

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His predicament is Lovecraftian in a way: he achieves a glimpse of these infinite, blurred superpositions, then is forcibly re-confined to a single existence. Eventually, every waveform collapses, and Johannes — like the rest of us — is left just one reality.

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