Garden of Sinners 5: Paradox Spiral

Movies that use the origin of humanity as a central plot point inevitably disappoint. There's no way a two-hour film can possibly come up with a satisfying answer to a question that has intrigued and baffled scholars, scientists, and theologians for millenia. Of all the Star Trek movies, which one is universally reviled? #5, The Final Frontier, where Spock's half-brother goes looking for God. I just saw Prometheus a couple of days ago and really enjoyed it...but there's a lot of grief on the Internet about it, and I can't say I blame them. It's a topic on which, by choosing it, you have bitten off more than you can chew.

While Paradox Spiral, the fifth entry in the Garden of Sinners series, does not fixate on that question, the quest for it becomes a central driving motivation for the plot. Is Paradox Spiral a wash because of it? No. However, if Garden of Sinners is guilty of one thing throughout its run up to this point, it's a reach that overextends its grasp -- and in doing so, it has at times been confusing, off-putting, and stingy with revealing its secrets. In Paradox Spiral, we have the most conventional storyline of the series complete with genuine villains and a story that's half Twilight Zone and half Night Gallery. For the first time, we have the sense that our lead characters may be up against something that could destroy them. Yet Paradox Spiral continues to have some of the same problems that have bothered me throughout this series, and most of them go back to the lack of comprehensible explanation. If you want to keep me satisfied, don't make your solutions a bunch of technobabble -- or in this show's case, pseudo-magicbabble -- and don't make the beginnings of the universe a plot device.

A young man murders his parents. Plagued by nightmares of being killed by his mother, Tomoe winds up slaying her before she can attack him. Fleeing in the streets, bullied by some neighborhood kids, he winds up under the protection of Shiki. He plows through her supply of Haagen-Das and becomes a sort of friend to our mysterious psychopathic protagonist. But the dreams keep coming...and when Shiki investigates, she finds that his parents aren't really dead at all. What gives? As they will find, the boy's home is part of a sinister venture designed to reveal how everything in the universe came to be...and those running it are more than willing to kill to protect their experiment.

Paradox Spiral is about double the length of previous entries in the series, which both helps and hurts. There's plenty of time for the story to breathe and to tell a full, engaging tale while not messing with the series' languid pacing and foreboding atmosphere. In the visual department, though, this installment isn't quite as impressive. While there are moments that dazzle -- witness the action sequence about forty minutes in for proof -- the artwork (while still pretty awesome) isn't quite up to the level that it has been. I still think that the second film, A Study In Murder Part 1, had the best look.

That's ironic because the creepiest thing about this chapter is not the bad guys but the architecture of the building designed for their "lab rats." At one point, one of them says, "Welcome to my Gehenna," and that's about right. The complex is freakish enough that I'd have second thoughts about ever moving into an apartment again. It's not filled with monsters and goblins; Garden of Sinners has never really been about that sort of thing. It's more about this otherwise ordinary skyscraper being both utterly banal and terrifying for what goes behind closed doors within.

I'm torn about how I feel about this film. On one hand, it is by far the most cohesive, coherent of the entries to date. It ties together some loose threads from previous episodes. Whereas earlier we only had confused, socially stunted antagonists for whom death at Shiki's hand was a kind of blessing, we have folks to root against here. The time loops within the film keep us guessing. There are also brief softer moments that work well. While there is graphic violence and disturbing imagery, it doesn't come across as excessive, not like in some of the other parts of this series. If this wasn't one of the most lauded films of the last five years or so, I might have been seriously impressed.

But on the other hand, this isn't the masterpiece some fans of the creators think it is. The villains are neither deep nor compelling. It toys with killing off characters only to use some lame excuses for them to be alive. The faux-technical explanations for what all happens aren't that interesting. And, frankly, it gets boring. I wound up taking a nap between the two portions of the film -- which in this case works because it divides in two pretty easily. Did I like it? Sure. But just like X and other epic dark magic fantasies before it, the film believes it is about more than what it is actually about. Dropping philosophy into a film doesn't make it philosophical. (This is my problem with more than one of Mamoru Oshii's films too, BTW...I'm not beating up on Paradox Spiral alone on this point.)

The film's saving grace is Tomoe. I really don't care about the lead characters in GOS because, as this film sadly seems to prove, they can't die (at least it doesn't seem so) and they don't grow. Tomoe, on the other hand, is a tragic figure who literally cannot escape the cycle of violence he finds himself in. He's guilty of murder but does not have it in his heart. I could give a rat's crap about Shiki and her mysterious faux-cool mystic eyes of death perception; she annoys me. She ain't human. But Tomoe? You want him to get out of the loop, to make good. He is the pathway for the audience to really appreciate this movie.

Perhaps where it all comes down is this: Garden of Sinners is adolescent. I'm not saying it's immature; it certainly is not that. But its appeal is in showing shockingly grown-up things -- which adolescents love because they feel they are finally getting in on the joke of the universe -- while making those unfamiliar with religion or philosophy feel smart about these subjects. But when you peel back all the layers of this picture, you find that there's far less at the center than one might expect from the trappings. Like The Hunger Games and Twilight and dozens of other popular properties, it appeals to teens because it mopes around with the idea of death and has spectacularly dreary settings. It captures the zeitgeist of our age and the sad reality that our world is not always a particularly nice place. But once you've gained a bit of maturity, that kind of navel-gazing gets old. Either that darkness consumes you and you wind up a Kurt Cobain or Amy Winehouse, or you grow out of it.

I mentioned at the beginning of my review my problem with the origin of the universe issue. It might seem odd that I bring it up, seeing that it is the McGuffin of the film, an unimportant and relatively unexplored reason for the plot machinations to occur. However, its inclusion says a lot about this film and this series. Simply put, there is no compelling way to include it in a film meant for entertainment without frustrating a huge cross-segment of your audience. It takes a big ego to think that you could create any meaningful conceit surrounding religious concepts. Brilliant cinematic minds -- Kubrick, Malick, and others -- have all tried with limited success. You can certainly make films with a Christian worldview or a Buddhist or Shinto or Islamic worldview; you might even be able to make those films engaging. But as a plot device? It just makes me groan.

The core of Paradox Spiral is compelling, and if they had left it at that, I might have been satisfied. If folks had not been telling me the whole time that this film was the whole reason to watch Garden of Sinners, I might be more forgiving. I liked it enough to recommend it. But do I think that folks who spent $400 for the box set of films got ripped off? At this point, if this is the supposed highlight? Yes, yes I do.

Garden of Sinners 5: Paradox Spiral -- graphic violence -- B