EIFF 2015 – Labyrinthus
Douglas Boswell’s Belgian family film Labyrinthus tells the story of a young boy who gets trapped inside a video game with very real stakes.
The closest comparison that can be drawn to this film is Jumanji meets The Matrix. It’s definitely not as dark or philosophically intense as the latter but there are enough common elements to make the association. It’s a curious blend that actually works quite well on a narrative level. The story sets up the binary world structure and has the two worlds form a symbiotic relationship where actions in one affect the other. It keeps the stakes relatively high and the whole thing feels urgent enough.
Frikke (Spencer Bogaert) serves as the protagonist. When he accidentally stumbles across a new game and decides to play it he quickly learns that there’s a lot more to it than he initially thought. He discovers that he can upload photos from the real world into the game to use in there so naturally he tries it on the cat. This doesn’t go so well as the poor thing is rendered instantly comatose. Other objects suffer a similar fate such as apples rotting in seconds or milk immediately going sour.
Establishing this as a problem early on keeps the sense of danger at the forefront when Frikke discovers Nola (Emma Verlinden), a young girl with amnesia stuck inside the game. It turns out that she is in a coma in the real world just like the cat so the mission of making sure she isn’t like that permanently is clear and simple pretty much from the outset.
Bogaert is a really capable young leading man and carries the film effortlessly. He has to work with a lot of scenes where he sits in front of a computer screen but manages to pull this off. There are many scenes where he leaves his room to investigate the cause of this in the real world so there is a nice variety. Bogaert is always believable and his character is very likeable. Kids will definitely warm to this character.
Verlinden does a good job as well. She has good chemistry with Bogaert despite the fact that they rarely share any real screen time together. She spends most of the film without her memory but plays Nola as strong and adaptable as well as filled with a sense of wonder at the world she has been sucked into. Nola is another character that young audiences will easily warm to.
The execution of the film is a mixed bag. Visually the video game world is very striking and there’s a fakeness about it that actually works considering it is a video game. It never looks too real which actually makes it seem more realistic. The video game premise is never fully taken advantage of though. There’s a real missed opportunity to dig into common video game tropes and spoof them but the film constantly plays it safe. For a good example of this watch Wreck it Ralph. Not to mention that as a video game it looks really uninteresting to play. Any potential tension is robbed from the film as it never seems that Frikke is having any difficulty with the game.
In a lot of ways the story is clumsily told with plot points being introduced and dropped very quickly. The fate of the cat is never revealed for instance. It always feels as if the film is rushing to get to the end of the story where a more deliberate pace might have worked a lot better. It’s never slow or boring but something is definitely lost in the mad scramble to get to the end.
It should be noted that the film is in Dutch with English subtitles which might be a deal breaker for some. I personally have problems with films that have subtitles. My brain finds it difficult to both read and watch so I tend to avoid them for that reason. I was fine with this one though as the dialogue is very simplistic and the visual narrative very much speaks for itself. It’s really easy to follow so the subtitles feel almost incidental.
This could be a good watch for kids but it’s nowhere near as clever as it could be. The idea of a video game with real world stakes is always going to be a cool idea so it’s a shame that the film doesn’t really take advantage of the video game premise and spoof this medium in some meaningful way. Not bad by any means but fairly forgettable.