Travelling Salesman (2012)

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The otherwise fairly terrible John Carpenter film “Escape From LA” has a final scene where anti-hero Snake Plissken has a chance to save the world’s electricity. Instead, he – in a gloriously nihilistic moment – flips the switch and plunges the entire world into darkness. This film is, essentially, a debate about whether we should do something very similar.

Four scientists – known as 1, 2, 3 and 4 in the credits – have come together to solve a problem previously thought unsolveable – the P v. NP argument. To put it in terms I could understand, any security system is breakable if you have enough time, but for the really complicated ones you’d need millions of years to go through every possibilty. There is a branch of mathematics that is attempting to work round this, to figure out a solution to extraordinarily complex problems more quickly…if you’d like to read more about this, the Wikipedia page on P v NP is a good start, and if that page didn’t make your eyes bleed then I think this could be the film for you.

Specifically, the “Travelling Salesman” problem relates to a salesman trying to plan his route between multiple different cities. You have a list of cities and the list of distances between them -how do you plan the best route without having to plan every possible route so you can pick the best one?

Those four scientists have, amazingly, solved the problem after several years, and the world’s security systems are now open to whoever has their algorithm. 5 enters, the representative of the Government who have been funding their research. He starts off all sweetness and light, but as they debate the implications, and the changes that have been made to their agreement with the Government, his facade drops very quickly and the debate turns hostile.

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Virtually the entire film is set in one room, around a table, with the 5 people debating (there are a few cuts to a TED talk the main scientist gives, as well as what may be flash-forwards and may just be fantasies). The cast are obviously more stand-ins for strains of thought than real people, but while one or two of them don’t quite have the acting chops to convince as genius scientists, the acting is by and large fine, and the enclosed space works for the big, world-spanning conversation they’re having.

The problem comes with film logic, and everything that isn’t the captivating and fascinating debate they’re having. Take, for instance, the pure science vs. government “reality” debate – if you were of a mind that having your invention controlled by the Government would be a bad thing, why take that same Government’s dollar to do the research in the first place? Initially, the sole threat for not signing the non-disclosure document is withdrawal of stipends, and the actual financial side of it doesn’t seem that impressive. If I could take my skills and make Facebook-level money on the open market, the withdrawal of fairly measly government funding wouldn’t really bother me at all – but this is enough for nearly all of them. It’s when there’s still a holdout that the government man’s response goes from reasonable (if a little aggressive) to completely cartoon villainy.

I think it might reasonably be said that this is a film about exceptionally smart people, written by someone who isn’t quite as smart as they are. There are a few too many obvious bits of dialogue that a group of people who’d been working together for four years would have got out of the way in the first week; and the people who do sign the agreement do so after the Government position has been revealed to be much less pleasant than it was at the beginning of the conversation.

I feel like I’m being a bit too critical about this film, and it’s completely unlike almost every other film I’ve reviewed for this site. It’s a thriller set in one room, with basically no action, and it succeeds where a great many other films have failed – in fact, it works better if you imagine it as just a thriller and not the “cerebral thriller” that the advertising makes reference to. And considering it was shot for around $25,000 in ten days, that makes its achievement even greater.

There is, to the very recent viewer, a rather large elephant in the room. This film came out in June 2012, and Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA spying on us all came out in May 2013, meaning that while a key to get round every bit of security would be helpful, our Government doesn’t need it to subject us to illegal, immoral searches. But in a way, that helps the film (the debates could as easily be about spying using traditional methods as they could be about the new technology that the film invents).

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I would definitely recommend this. Making a film as cheaply as they did meant they were allowed to go wherever they wanted, and while I wasn’t on board for every choice, I’m still thinking about it hours later, and the same most definitely can’t be said for 99% of the ISCFC’s other reviewed films.

Rating: thumbs up

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