Four mathematicians are trapped in a room with the walls slowly closing in on them. They are given a series of mathematical puzzles to solve within one minute in order to stop the room from shrinking. If they can't solve the puzzles in time, how long will it take before the walls eventually crush them to death? Oh, and don't forget to show your work.
That's the premise to the 2007 Spanish thriller “Fermat's Room”, which aspires to be the thinking man's “Saw” by adding puzzle-solving elements to the traditional Agatha Christie murder-mystery dinner party setup. The four people in question are sent coded invitations to a gathering of mathematicians by a mysterious person calling himself Fermat.
As tends to be the case for these kind of movies, each person earned his or her invitation for a very specific reason that is only revealed in the second act. There's the young theoretician who solved a 250 year old problem only to have his office ransacked and all of his work destroyed. There's the beautiful girl with a few dark secrets in her past. There's the mathematician who squandered his talent on frivolous money-making inventions like a popcorn popper shaped like a duck. And there's the elderly genius who has lost interest in life and only cares about numbers as games and competitions.
In opening the film with the lines “Do you understand what prime numbers are? Because if you don't you should just leave now.”, the filmmakers prepare the viewer for a mind-melting enigma movie that requires full concentration and rewards multiple viewings. Much to the relief of viewers who struggled through algebra class, that movie never comes.
The reality is that “Fermat's Room” is an entirely middle-brow affair. At one point a character comes out with some profound words of wisdom. The quote comes not from Archimedes, as one character guesses, but MacGyver. That’s a pretty good analogy for the movie – it has more in common with Richard Dean Anderson than ancient Greeks. Or to put it in movie terms, it’s a lot more “Die Hard with a Vengeance” than “Primer”. “Fermat's Room” doesn't break new ground and it's probably not going to make anyone's favorite movie list, but it is the kind of crowd-pleasing movie that can be enjoyed with parents, kids or anyone with an eighth-grade education and no fear of subtitles.
Most of the puzzles will be familiar to anyone who has even a passing familiarity with logic problems. Classics like the “shepherd, fox, sheep and cabbage” problem and the “land of the truth-tellers and the land of the liars” problem appear alongside of some more obscure puzzles, but none of the puzzles are very difficult or even really require much math. One of the biggest plot-holes in the movie is that even with the imminent threat of being squished, it's hard to imagine that any mathematician would have any trouble at all solving puzzles that wouldn’t be out of place on the comics page of a newspaper. As long as the viewer focuses all their logic on the puzzles and not on the film's plot, it's not a problem, and keeping the problems simple and understandable gives the movie a fun “play along at home” quality.
Just like most twist-y mysteries, trying to guess the identity and motive of the person behind the strange game is much more interesting than actually finding out the answer. When the twist is revealed, not only is it a bit of a let-down, but it also opens a whole new set of questions that the film glosses over in the hopes that the viewer won't start thinking critically about the wisdom or practicality of the plan.
It's the James Bond Villain Paradox. The reason the bad guy ties Bond to an elaborate trap he'll inevitably escape from instead of just shooting him in the head right away is because if he did that, there wouldn't be a movie. Sure, it's a bit lazy and unbelievable but that's all part of the suspension of disbelief. It's all a moot point though, because this film is about the problems, not the solutions, and it does a good job of keeping the suspense up and cranking up the tension as the room gets smaller and more claustrophobic.
It might seem contradictory to recommend a movie about mathematicians solving problems as something to enjoy with your brain switched off, but that's exactly what “Fermat's Room” is. It's kind of like solving the sudoku puzzle in the Monday paper – it might make you feel smart, but really you're just plugging numbers into a grid. Anyone who finds the premise of the film intriguing will probably enjoy the movie as long as they accept up front that very little of it will hold up to any kind of critical thinking afterward, from the premise to the characters' motivations to the extraordinary coincidences that were necessary for many of the events in the movie to take place. Maybe the real puzzle behind “Fermat's Room” is whether it's a dumb movie for smart people or a smart movie for dumb people. Now there's a brain-teaser.