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Do you have any plans, of any kind, to manipulate the world?

Frequencies
(2013)

(SPOILERS) Low budget science-fiction movies are often among the genre’s most satisfying, since they have to rely almost entirely on their core ideas rather than showy effects or spectacle. Frequencies is one such, positing an alternate reality where we are defined by our frequency – high, low, somewhere in between – and positioned in society accordingly (everything from luck to romantic entanglements is affected – opposites here repel). At its root, this is a love story and rumination on freewill and determinism, but writer-director Darren Paul Fisher infuses the proceedings with such a rich conceptual framework that Frequencies very nearly convinces you of its fictional profundity. Before you pull back and realise it doesn’t really hang together, that is. Although, I’m not altogether sure it needs to.

Fisher, who made several variably received movies before this (Inbetweeners, not The namesake, and Popcorn), introduces the basic arrangement of this society through the interactions of a school of savants and their extended families (both high and low in frequency). They’re all named after high achievers, an overt nod on Fisher’s part to such abilities. He’s perhaps wisely reticent of the minutiae as he depicts their journey from childhood to adulthood, since his intent is as much thematic as it is dramatic. Thus, those of a very high frequency (Marie-Curie Fortune, played successively by Lily Laight, Georgina Minter-Brown and Eleanor Wild) are guaranteed to be high achievers but relatively emotion free (one might draw a series of analogies here, from autistic, to psychopathic – Marie habitually smiles at others because she perceives this is what they expect her to do, very Patrick Bateman – to your straight up Mr Spock). Those of a very low frequency (Isaac-Newton Midgeley, played at respective ages by Charlie Rixon, Dylan Llewellyn and Daniel Fraser) have no luck and are highly empathic. Of course, one might expect them to be very thick too, in a contrasting extremes sense, but Isaac is a genius in his own right.

Being polar opposites, Marie and Zak (Isaac) are not permitted to remain in each other’s company (your classic recipe for star-crossed lovers, excepting that Marie, initially at least, has no feelings for Zak one way or the other). Marie is clinically interested in developing feelings, Zak deeply smitten with Marie. Which is where third significant party Theodor-Adorno – a cute reference on Fisher’s part, Adorno being the alleged creator of The Beatles’ catalogue along with numerous other 60s hits from popular beat combos – Strauss (Ethan Turton, Tom England and Owen Pugh play his various progressions). Along similar lines, another character is called Nicola Tesla.

At his school science fair, Theo produces a device for predicting behaviour, of which “if this is real, then it assumes we are just complex machines, that we may not have a soul, certainly not any free will”. Theo, being exactly average in frequency, is indifferent to this objection, failing to see the importance. We eventually learn that Theo, through a combination of this predictive device and one which, through the use of specifically created words, enables one to change one’s frequency, or enable one to exert control over another, has been manipulating events. The structural conceit adopted in this regard – replaying events from different perspectives – is in itself a smart layer from Fisher, the kind of recalibrating the likes of Damon Lindelof is wont to flourish, and it works well, if not quite as breathtakingly when it comes down to it (there are revelations, but the effect is more focussed on understanding a previously subjective character, the picture moving from Marie to Zak and finally Theo’s machinations).

The love-story angle is perhaps the main connective tissue to Fisher’s previous work, and it is, at heart, not that out-there, with its requisite concerns over betrayal and misunderstandings regarding motive before true love – complete with ruminations over whether this is merely fate at work, and there is no freewill involved in their coming together – prevailing.

It’s a reflection of the shoestring production that none of the performances in Frequencies are outright bad, but some are definitely better than others. Added to which, the picture is nothing special visually, very much a digital production and evidencing the concomitant lack of texture (other than a neat tweaking of the colour palette when Theo touches Marie; her world thaws whilst his becomes slightly frostier). Indeed, by far the most impressive production element is Blair Mowat’s score, lending the picture an infectious rhythm and lyrical progression; without it, Frequencies would be a little too ordinary in execution. With it… well, it’s a perfect reinforcement of the narrative’s importance of music in this world.

I was put onto the trail of watching the movie via a reference to its incorporation of an historical reset in its premise, one that roughly ties in to the period ruminated as having been the “last” great reset: 1760 (although theories tend towards the beginning of that century). Fisher throws in a number of allusions without actually saying as much per se, but the main thrust of “technology” – or magic: “There never was any magic. Only the book being lost, found, written, rewritten. Being used to control the names. And then came the music” – as a means to manipulate and control society by its elite is unmistakable.

Frequencies’ diversion into clandestine government activities and the censure of forbidden ancient tech is an instantly appealing one (if that sort of thing appeals to you, obviously). Government agent Bridges (Timothy Block), is on hand to provide the now requisitioned individuals aware of the technology – in order for them to develop a means to counteract it – with some welcome exposition. We’re told it was first responsible for establishing the ruling class – whether you want to label that as magical/diabolical or through advanced tech – and was “the major contributing factor to most wars up until 1066”. However, the steep decline in its effectiveness after 1100 is not understood, while “The last known date of any successful usage was about 1760. We don’t know why”.

Fortunately, Theo’s dad Strauss (David Broughton-Davies) is on hand to fill in the gaps. The picture’s best scenes are probably both his, thanks to the evocative musical accompaniment, first as he teaches young Zak the piano and then provides “a brief history lesson”, again to the sound of Mozart. Strauss recounts how it was music itself that nullified the mind-control effect of “the book” (of words), and with each new piece the book was weakened until, in 1760, Mozart’s first composition arrived and “truly immunised us against the book” (an interesting choice of words).

As such, while Frequencies presents an alt-reality alt-history, it isn’t providing a co-ordinated reset as such: “Music, it’s the reset button” (unless Mozart’s influence is taken as expressly designed to achieve this). Indeed, aside from the masses being oblivious to what went on before, it appears to be counter to prevailing reset theory: the elite’s hold is lessened during the subsequent quarter millennium, rather than representing a new era in which to repeat the cycle to ultimate doom (albeit, at one point, a means of countering the words is mooted: “It would work. But it would kill most of the population”). Strauss attests that, rather than being a secret “It just fell out of history by mutual consent”.

Fisher is undoubtedly onto something when he identifies the magical properties of words (whether one chooses to define them as incantatory or simple conveyers of cause and effect, they shape and mould our collective paradigm). He’s also again, aided by Mowat, sharp when it comes to the transformative or healing effect of music. Some thought it a bit much that the picture ends with a doctor prescribing Zak Brahms and Mozart and Marie Pachelbel to listen to, and it’s true that this is very arch, but I rather liked the humorously alt-medicine twist.

And it offers the lingering gut punch that, for all the doctor’s comforting manner, “You’re perfectly normal, for a machine”. Despite this musical balm, the world continues to project a dampening, automotive definition of the human (thus easily objectified by ruling classes, as predetermined cogs within a control grid). Even Strauss states we’re “Just mechanisms. Complex, certainly. But mechanisms nonetheless”. However, he qualifies this, and so distinguishes himself from his son. Asked where this reset button is, he replies simply “The soul”.

Strauss believes that, for all his son’s smug assertion that he can know the true pattern, the universal symphony (“Knowledge is useless if you know only parts”), free will is not an illusion, and that creativity and improvisation exist. Frequencies expressly concludes with the open question – Theo able to manipulate an entire bar of drumming fingers, his father leaving his presence forever, Zach and Marie not caring either way as long as they’re together – but maybe Theo’s actions will trigger another reset, after which the conundrum will continue to be posed periodically and ultimately remain forever unsolved.

Frequencies perhaps rather stints on ultimate plausibility because Fisher hasn’t filled in all the blanks in his own mind. Rather like a piece of music, you’re carried along, without interrogating the notes or arrangement too much until it’s over. While this sounds on the face of it like a recipe for bad Young Adult fiction, Frequencies’ sheer wealth of ideas and ability to express some of them at least to a compelling degree make it a largely rewarding endeavour.

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