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This movie does a lot with a little in terms of production.

A no-budget British science fiction film, Frequencies (also called OXV: The Manual) is a surprisingly ambitious and self-assured piece of filmmaking and storytelling. Starting with a quantum mechanics infused story of unlikely love and eventually treading ground much deeper and more interesting, Frequencies is steeped in fundamental philosophical and social inquiry and thought. Most fundamental of all is perhaps the question of causality versus free will, a deeply affecting question that the majority of people are very uncomfortable facing. Are we free agents able to actually make decisions and affect outcomes thereby? Or are we automatons living out the product(s) of infinitely complex causal equations that render everything determined.

On the face of it, Frequencies operates with a narrow, potentially hokey concept that quickly builds on itself to encapsulate a movie-as-thought experiment. It’s the way that it commits to the concept and carries it off into surprising and yet logical places that makes this movie special. This movie feels made for me, in some ways, but I’m willing to bet I can make a case for why others should give it a look.

It’s quite a dense bit of work from writer-director Darren Paul Fisher. I feel like he might be the UK’s answer to Shane Carruth and I hope he doesn’t wait as long to make another film!

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Zak and Marie orbit each other, but is it circumstance or design?

Much like in an Andrew Niccol movie, the world of Frequencies is pretty much the same as the one we know except that scientists have managed to measure and quantify a form of cosmic luck they call “Frequency”. Those with high frequencies tend to get everything they want out of life, as if the universe itself bends and reforms to accommodate them. On the other hand, those with low frequencies have bad luck, bad timing, and low status.

This potent concept seems tailor-made for a story about classism, but that is only one of the themes Frequencies explores. Mostly, this is more a story about the problems with both determinism and free will. It winds up being remarkably even-handed with how different approaches and philosophies can affect people, and how they may all be equally legitimate in the context of a universe that doesn’t care whether we see chaos or order.

Most of the film focuses on Zak (Daniel Fraser), named for Isaac Newton, a kid with an exceptionally low frequency. He has a crush on Marie (Eleanor Wyld), named for Marie Curie, who has an exceptionally high frequency. With the help of his friend Theo (Owen Pugh), named for Theodore Adorno, Zak spends his life conspiring to raise his frequency and win the affections of Marie, with whom he can’t spend more than a minute without their creating probability events that are potentially dangerous. This could be a very twee and cute formula, but it’s played with a straight hand and sort of a clinical detachment. There are no manipulative music cues or anything like that, simply the observation of moments. This is infused with a kind of anticipation, which I think is intended to feel a bit like we’re studying these people. Like we’re the scientists. This feels appropriate.

As the movie unfolds, we see things from first Marie’s perspective, then Zak’s, and finally Theo’s. Every scene creates more clues for the audience to tie it all together.

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Marie’s problem is an example of what it would be to be a perfectly rational being.

Marie’s issue is that her high frequency leaves her devoid of empathy. She is curious about Zak and drawn to him, but can never return his love. Zack and Theo’s experiments eventually yield a way for Theo to counteract the destructive results of his sharing space with Marie. Using special words that seem to redirect the “waves” of frequency and remake the world, as Zak’s theories (a mixture of quantum uncertainty and the power of positive thinking that should sound like Deepak Chopra bullshit but feels right in this universe) suggest. With this, he and Marie can achieve a kind of balance between his bad luck and her unasked for sociopathic personality. With Zak she comes alive and for a while, things are good.

In a romantic comedy, the next thing to happen would be some kind of unexpected hitch that drove the couple apart only for them to renew their love by the end. That is sort of what happens, actually, but it’s so much more interesting and earned than in a romcom. For one thing, it isn’t as formulaic here because it’s tied completely into the mechanism of the frequencies and the shadowy world of the government scientists and secret societies who are disrupted by Zac and Theo’s discovery of the secret language.

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Permeating all of the fantasy science in this movie, there’s a systematic processing of ideas and possibilities we should examine more closely.

The words are actually commands, penetrating deep into the brains of the people who hear them and altering their frequencies by altering their perceptions of the world. In this world, belief in the frequencies is enough to make them real. So is belief in a lot of other things, as Tobias seems to discover while conning and experimenting on everyone else in the movie.

The fact that his special words actually force people to do what he says gets Zak into hot water with the government and with Marie. Is her love real, or does she love Zak because he put the idea in her head with an especially persuasive magic word? This stuff is taking aim directly at our normative concepts of love and choice and asking the big, uncomfortable questions about the truth in what we know and what we feel.

The end leaves all the characters in different places. When Zak’s rediscovery of the language, called “the technology”, forces the government’s hand, it also pits Zak against Theo in the pursuit of the truth. Zak learns that Theo and his father, who once showed Zak a great deal of kindness, are the inheritors of a secret legacy. That legacy is the knowledge that music, especially certain kinds, is the inherent antidote to the effect produced by the technology. This is the same sort of “language is a virus” stuff present in other works of fiction like the book Snow Crash or the movie Pontypool, but with a neuro-deterministic basis.

With this discovery come cool, amusing scenes like a psychologist prescribing music like pills. Things like this are completely consistent with the web of ideas that Frequencies builds over its running time. The climax is a liberation from the technology, leaving Marie and Zak free to see if their love works without it. They, being intelligent people, ponder the implications and whether or not what they feel is really real, given that Theo has been monitoring and influencing nearly everything in his quest to, well, understand it all.

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Things take their toll on poor Zak, who is conditioned to follow his own instincts toward free will over the determinism represented by Theo.

At the end, Marie and Zak’s rejection of determinism’s effect on their feelings flies in the face of Theo’s final conversation with his father. Theo, puffed up with the understanding and foresight his simulations have given him, acts coldly in his final demonstration of determinism and its promise of knowledge, power, and control. He thinks it does matter, and this is what it’s turned him into. He’s not quite a mad scientist, but there’s something incredibly creepy and sociopathic about his behavior by this point. Even his intonation is devoid of human feeling, much to Pugh’s credit. I don’t think Frequencies is saying that being a determinist will make you a sociopath, but it’s hinting that way and leaving the audience to decide whether they buy it. Likewise with Zack and Marie who may seem naive and stupid by rejecting the questions and embracing the emotional reality of their connection in spite of its dubious origins. They have an experience of being in love, a phenomenology of that, and they choose this over a reductive truth.

Frequencies doesn’t reject a deterministic universe. Its world is certainly deterministic whether Zak and Marie notice or not. This is precisely the point its making about our world as well. In the movie, reductionism and phenomenology are treated as equally (potentially) valid. The movie holds up both scenarios as a mirror to the viewer, hoping they will see something of themselves and perhaps reflect on their own awareness of what they do and why. This is the brilliance of Frequencies. It encourages this type of thinking without trivializing it. Its speculative universe, created as a thought experiment to ponder determinism, gives us a chance to model our thinking and see what shakes out. This makes Frequencies an eminently philosophical film, of a kind infrequently (pun intended) available to the average audience.

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