Perfect Sense is the sort of science fiction film I like to call phi-sci-fi, featuring science which is more philosophical than scientific. It doesn't present a plausible vision of the future, but it does present an idea that offers a generous amount of dramatic potential. While I prefer hard sci-fi as a general rule, this more thematically-driven approach can prove immensely rewarding in the right hands. Consider Lars von Trier's emotionally overwhelming Melancholia, or the quietly affecting power of Don McKellar's Last Night. David Mackenzie's similarly apocalypse-themed Perfect Sense belongs in the same category as those films, but it doesn't trust its audience as much as either of them.
In Perfect Sense, the end of the world begins with the loss of a single sense. A man suddenly loses his the ability to smell, and his doctors are unable to find an explanation. It's the beginning of an epidemic: people all over the world start losing their sense of smell, and before long the human race is left with only four senses. Humans adjust to this. They start making their food spicier, sweeter and stronger in an effort to compensate for the change. Street musicians begin attempting to capture the essence of scents in the form of music. Then, people start losing their sense of taste, and... well, I trust you see where this is going.
The film's portrait of an ever-evolving global crisis is fascinating, but Mackenzie opts to spend most of his time focusing on two people: an epidemiologist named Susan (Eva Green, Penny Dreadful) and a chef named Michael (Ewan McGregor, Big Fish). They meet just as the crisis is beginning, and though they don't exactly hit it off right away, their mutual uncertainty about the state of the world causes both of them to hesitate about moving on. If things really are going to hell, maybe it's best to cling to what they have. The loss of each new sense has a different affect on their relationship, and in each instance, they find themselves turning to sex in an effort to distract themselves from what they've lost. The sex scenes begin as old-fashioned intimacy, but have an increasingly hungry, desperate quality as time passes.
Unfortunately, their relationship is defined in almost exclusively sexual terms, because they never seem to be able to form any sort of substantial connection outside the bedroom. Mackenzie attempts to find a way to make their intentional lack of chemistry dramatically compelling, but he doesn't quite manage it. Most of their scenes together are simply boring, and that's a problem considering that these scenes occupy roughly half of the film's running time.
Both Michael and Susan are far more interesting when they're apart, because their respective professions place them at the center of the crisis in a variety of interesting ways. The movie's most fascinating scenes are the ones which demonstrate how humanity responds to each new development. It finds humor, horror and melancholy in much of this material (there's a wonderful sequence of a chef preparing dishes that emphasize texture over taste, as it's being prepared at a time when humans have lost their sense of taste but still retain their sense of touch), but these moments also serve to reveal that the film's emphasis is in the wrong place. Mackenzie captures the whole of humanity with greater insight than he captures two specific people.
The film's strongest moments are so potent that the movie nearly worked for me in spite of its failings, but too many of these moments are undercut by unnecessary narration. Perhaps fearing that the audience won't get the point, screenwriter Kim Fupz Aakeson has the narrator spell out what's happening and what it's all supposed to mean. It's an awkward attempt to shove our emotional response in a particular direction – a direction I might have actually gone if the narrator weren't pushing me there quite so aggressively. Perfect Sense has a terrific premise, but it doesn't live up to the potential of that premise often enough.
Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 88 minutes
Release Year: 2011