Mateo Gil's Spanish rom-com mockumentary tumbles toward entropy with beautiful visuals, but a scattered story and weak protagonist.
As any science fiction nerd can tell you, people can be rudimentarily broken down into either Kirks or Spocks. One uses cold logic to solve situations, while the other acts based on instinct and intuition. Many a comic-con based war has been waged trying to argue the supremacy of one side over the other, but any true fan will tell you that the real winner is the partnership between the two. Netflix’s latest original film The Laws of Thermodynamics sets us on a documentary-style voyage into the mysterious heavenly body known as Love, where laws don’t always apply.
This film begins by giving us a brief science lesson to ease us into the topic of thermodynamics. We get to hear from experts in the field as a way to frame the seriousness of the documentary, only to have it all to happily subverted and revealed to be a mockumentary. The story between all the interviews with scientists follows another scientist named Manel (Vito Sanz), as he takes us through his love life to prove how his scientific method predicted its monumental failure all along. Manel works as a teaching assistant at a university while working on his thesis on the laws of thermodynamics. Unfortunately for us, this film feels like the physical manifestation of a draft of his thesis; facts scattered inside a loose framing device that probably made more sense in the writer’s head than it does on paper.
Writer/director Mateo Gil wants the viewer to understand that above all, this film is a love story. What Gil struggles with is juggling the catechism with the cynical and clinical aspects of the film. The humorous elements in this film as so few and far between that it seems more like they’re orbiting the film instead of actually being in it. The drama becomes the nucleus of this film, and every scientific theory and process talked about in the film does a wonderful job at supporting that. The documentary-style conceit runs through the entire film and its persistent injection into the story is really the only thing that keeps the pacing close to balanced. If anything, somewhere out there is a person who will re-edit this film to keep only the documentary parts and create something just as satisfying as the film.
The story follows the age-old argument of whether you should follow the head or the heart. Both have their pitfalls, but like any film following a tried-and-true story progression, The Laws of Thermodynamics shows us one extreme, but then preaches for balance. One of the refreshing aspects of the film is how Gil handles the character of Manel. He is our guide in this journey of self and scientific discovery, but we discover early on that his skewed perspective is not to be trusted. The slow-burn to discovering just how much of an unreliable narrator he is becomes worthwhile in the final act of the film when we get to see that he isn’t the hero of his own story. This is finally where the film hits its stride as it gallops away from any notion of gallantry on Manel’s part.
Throughout the entire time we spend with Manel, his intellect is undeniable. He could talk circles around most people and often does, especially women. The analogies he makes about scientific facts and the world around him prove not only fun and invigorating but also provide greatly needed visual fare. To the other characters, it comes off as an amusing party trick that quickly loses its charm when it becomes apparent just how condescending it is. As the film progresses, Manel’s charm also begins to wane as we realize that he is not the victim of this story, but the villain. By creating an untrustworthy character as our lens into the world, Gil perfectly shows us how flawed our own perception can be, especially in relationships. Through the examination of his character, we realize how much of a crutch Manel’s intelligence has become, especially when it came to it supporting his fragile male ego and stoking his insecurities. For a person so focused on scientific laws, Manel became a victim to defeatist self-fulfilling prophecies that turned him into a not wholly irredeemable domestic abuser.
The Laws of Thermodynamics feels like a cinematic exercise in what “The Big Bang Theory” would look like if it were presented in long form, and if it didn’t rely on the lowest hanging fruits from nerd culture. The science is solid, the storytelling is shoddy, but the visual style is sumptuous enough to keep the viewer stimulated. Sound logic is great and all, but save for some of the more human aspects of the film, there is little emotion left to feel but disappointment at promising initial execution. Add this one to the failed experiments list.
The Laws of Thermodynamics reaches absolute entropy on Netflix Friday, August 31st.