Diamonds in the Rough (DitR, /dɪ’tər/) takes some of the most derided, divisive, controversial, financially catastrophic, and meme-worthy movies and tries to find the silver lining. Bad movies don’t always start as bad ideas, and flops aren’t always flop-worthy. DitR seeks to find the good within the bad, because the world could use some positivity. And when all else fails, making fun of bad movies is oh-so satisfying.
In this installment, we look at the 2018 Steven Soderbergh-produced, Flying Lotus-produced science fiction film from Eddie Alcazar, Perfect. [Caution: Spoilers Ahead].
- Rotten Tomatoes: 17% (12 critics)
- Metacritic: 36 (7 critics)
- IMDb: 5.5/10 (1,496 ratings)
- Letterboxd: 3.6/5 (369 ratings)
I should be transparent from the outset: I found Perfect to be insufferable. This is Diamonds in the Rough, though, thus I am here to mine these films for their positives. However, this one was a struggle.
My major issue with the film is how it hides superficiality behind ethereal imagery, oblique storytelling, and purposefully concealing heightened dialogue. The slight story that does come to the surface is slowly strung across an 87 minute runtime (it is closer to 80 when you take the closing credits sequence into account), making the viewing experience a significant slog.
The easy approach to an article like this would be to highlight the glimpses of interesting filmmaking and ignore my storytelling concerns altogether. It isn’t as if the film is devoid of style. Inventive animation and neon-tinted special effects give the film life in spite of the moody, lifeless story. Could almost the entire film be lit a bit brighter so that we could see these effects clearly? Certainly. But, through squinting eyes, I enjoyed the visual palette just fine.
However, the goal here is to try and justify the flaws of Perfect as a potential place of creative intent. I will attempt to argue—despite not truly believing that this argument makes the viewing experience of the film any better—that Perfect is director Eddie Alcazar and screenwriter Ted Kupper’s attempt to write a classical tragedy.
The film opens with abstract closeups on an unclear object, a strobe light effect giving it all an unsettling aura. Eventually, these images gain clarity, and we see blood and the skin and hair of a woman. It later becomes clear that this is the girlfriend of a young man (Garrett Wareing), who will only be known as “Vessel 13.” The boy frantically calls his mother (Abbie Cornish), frightened. In what the boy describes as a dream state, he accidentally killed his girlfriend.
His mother, visibly upper class and seemingly employed as a model, sends him away to a mysterious facility in the mountains, a secluded medical resort where he must “choose a path” by installing biotechnical implants into his body. These crystalline, polygonal implants seemingly send users closer to perfection, an evolved existence divorced from the animal instincts of humans. Vessel 13 quickly becomes obsessed with the application of these implants, seemingly because a woman he has fallen for, Sarah (Courtney Eaton), has progressed faster than him in this pursuit of evolution.
Given the way that the dialogue of Perfect is written, viewing the film as a hearkening back to Greek tragedy—with a sci-fi twist!—is not much of a stretch. When one of the first lines in the film, delivered in moody voiceover, is “how do we create a we to an I,” you know you are in for an intentionally heightened experience.
Aristotle set the tragedy apart from other genres by describing a “pleasure of pity and fear” found exclusively in the experience of classic tragedy. There is a catharsis experienced in watching a tragedy in which these feelings of pity and fear are purged in some satisfying way. As such, tragedy is wrapped up in intense emotions, both on stage and in the audience. Perfect does try to replicate this tragic intensity.
Borrowing from the overview of tragedy given by Dr. Lilia Melani at CUNY and adapted from A Guide to the Study of Literature: A Companion Text for Core Studies 6, Landmarks of Literature, we can apply the common characteristics of tragedy to Perfect.
The overview begins with a useful summative statement: “Tragedy usually focuses on figures of stature whose fall implicates others … and typically the tragic protagonist becomes isolated from his or her society … In the tragic vision, the possibility of a happy ending is unrealized, although it is sometimes suggested.”
The protagonist of Perfect is not apparently a figure of stature at the film’s outset—although he seems to come from means, and his mother has connections to this elite medical facility. While at the facility, though, those pulling the strings behind the scenes comment on his exclusive potential, in a sense intimating that he may fall into the “Chosen One” archetype. As Vessel 13 continues applying implants, he becomes isolated and withdrawn (he begins the journey isolated, as well, given the remote location of the facility). And his fall seemingly implicates everybody, as his potential to be the transcendent next step in human evolution is thwarted by the hubris of his obsession. If nothing else, on a more intimate level his mother is implicated, as she blames herself for his failings and is the person who sent him away in the first place.
The seven elements that help define the “tragic vision,” as given by Melani, play into the realization of the tragedy in Perfect. There is a catastrophic, seemingly inevitable conclusion to Vessel 13’s story. It comes about because, as Ozawa (Tao Okamoto) correctly intuits, “a true purification … [is] too much for him.” He is limited by his human vices and desires, as well as perhaps the literal humanness of his being. Vessel 13 suffers, bodily and emotionally. While he has lashed out violently (although, if he is to believed, it was an unconscious action and thus devoid of malice) and he is generally a wet blanket of a character, the film shows little to justify his severe body horror punishment. Ultimately, because this outcome comes about due to his erring human actions, it shows a “redemptive” resolution, a site for a “learning process.”
The true intent behind this last point is a bit tricky, and it is arguably the reason why Perfect may be a tragedy, but it is not a particularly effective one. As the premise is science fiction in nature and thereby distanced from reality, it is difficult to determine the real-life correlation. The script’s determination to be concealing, abstract as a means of hiding its superficiality, makes it difficult to take anything meaningful away from Vessel 13’s tragic fall.
At a fairly basic level, this secluded world of body modification could simply be symbolic of body image and normative conceptions of beauty. This would explain the mute, Abercrombie & Fitch models who do nothing but stand around a wading pool and pose all day, as well as the Portrait of Dorian Gray-style irony to Vessel 13’s physical transformation. But it does little to explain the long-winded, oblique speeches, told in soliloquy in voiceover, about power and control. Ultimately, it is all so oblique as to mean nothing at all, even if Alcazar inscribed a specific intended message into the words.
Ironically, Alcazar has said that the film’s visuals are meant to be superficial as a counterpoint to the “higher concepts and depth” found within the themes, but I find the opposite to be true. Alcazar, who began his career designing content for video games, crafts some engaging and dense visuals, but I think the film fails at the point where the thematic and narrative material meet those visuals.
In the same interview with Dread Central, Alcazar implies that maybe the “learning process” portion of this tragedy is about how the conveniences that technology affords us could come to be more dangerous than we might initially believe. This is an idea that has been used in many pieces of science fiction throughout the genre’s history, and that such a well-trod idea is hidden under a subterfuge of heightened, heady dialogue makes the experience of unpacking the film even less fruitful.
Yet there is something theatrical about the faux Shakespearean diction, coming out in intense spurts between dramatic pauses, that makes the whole experience of Perfect feel both of a piece with Greek tragedy and heightened enough for a science fiction universe (which is not fleshed out enough in the film to engage with on a critical level, but there is a possibility that this entire film takes place off-world somewhere). With this atmosphere created, I found myself wanting to connect things where connections likely were not intended.
For example, there is clearly something Oedipal going on between Vessel 13 and his mother. He brings with him to the facility two photos of her that look as though they were taken at magazine photo shoots (one of which, I believe, is his mother in lingerie). Later, when he talks to her on the video call, he experiences uncontrollable visions of him having sex with someone.
With this reading in mind, the film becomes even more Sophocles-inspired when it is revealed that the doctor leading the operations at this medical treatment resort (Maurice Compte) is in fact Vessel 13’s “figurative and biological” father. While the film does not directly mirror the plot of Oedipus Rex, there is something to the strained relationships between two people who wield some degree of power and their son. It would be easy to re-write this script so that Dr. Price (Compte) is a king who had a bastard child with a woman, then paid off the woman to leave town and raise the child on her own. The mother of the child then shields the boy from his true lineage until it becomes apparent that there is no other choice but to send him to his father. Fate has determined that the true prodigal son will return to the throne (Perfect does depict, in flashbacks to a primitive tribal society, Vessel 13 as a seemingly authoritarian ruler).
This re-skin of the film presents an even clearer vision of classical tragedy. There is a comeuppance for a person in a position of power who abused that power. There is a reckoning with one’s true identity in a way that introduces the hubris which leads to a fall. And there is the person who attempted to be morally upright but who nevertheless suffers as a result of the protagonist’s tragic arc.
Now, I’m all but certain that none of this was going through the heads of Alcazar and Kupper as they came up with the treatment for this film. The film seems too ingratiated to its own sci-fi conceit to want to mirror Greek tragedy that directly. But the constructs are there. This is also not to say that simply adhering to the characteristics of the tragic structure is something that is novel in contemporary film. The tragic narrative structure is all over film and literature. It is a tried and true structure. But there is something somewhat novel in the approach of Perfect to heighten the dialogue, thereby inviting comparisons to Sophocles and other writers of tragedy.
The clout added to Perfect with the producer credits of Steven Soderbergh and Flying Lotus is not necessarily undeserved. Soderbergh, who entered the film during the post-production phase, gave the film credit for its abnormal audiovisual elements: “I would be the last person to try and get him to water this thing down and make it normal. I love the fact that it’s as insane as it is … I thought it was an incredible tour-de-force of images and sound.” I am inclined to agree that the film’s audiovisual uniqueness is its standout quality. And this collaboration with Flying Lotus is not their first; they worked together on FlyLo’s directorial debut Kuso. Kuso and Perfect share a strangeness and a visual effects-driven body horror.
The film received significant backing, because it has vision. That vision is simply underserved by a superficial take on technophobia and human tragedy. Is Perfect a hidden gem? Maybe. Some have gone to the mat for it on Letterboxd. I won’t. On the contrary, my review won’t do it any favors. But it certainly is hidden, in that relatively few have seen it (the film is currently on Amazon Prime if you wish to find it), and some would tout it as a gem. But if it is a hidden gem, it is certainly one with an acquired taste.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)