Overview: After gaining the power to see smells following a lab accident, a professor fights to keep his discovery out of the wrong hands. Gravitas Ventures; 2017; Not Rated; 112 minutes.
Premiering Tonight at 8/7 Central: Stanley Jacobs’ 96 Souls missed its true calling as an entertaining yet slightly campy kid’s movie. It features the kind of set-up seemingly ripped straight from Nickelodeon or Disney Channel original movies from the late ’90s to the early ’00s: following a lab accident, professor Jack Sutree (Grinnell Morris) accidentally gains the ability to see smells. Eventually his super-sight increases in power to the point where he can read people’s auras to identify their demeanor, mood, and secret emotions, essentially becoming a mind reader. And all this because he spills blue science juice in his eyes. This all sounds like it could make a great double feature with LeVar Burton’s Smart House (1999) or Jonathan Frakes’ Clockstoppers (2002). But more than just its storyline, 96 Souls is also filmed and acted like one of these kid’s movies: the cinematography is flat and bland; the performances trade subtle nuance for broad over-acting. Consider how Jacobs chooses to visually interpret Sutree’s ability to read minds. First, he cuts to a long shot of Sutree’s subject. Then, through the power of green screens, a double of the actor will appear behind the original and act out what they’re thinking. In the case of a crooked lawyer, the double roars in fury like the MGM lion passing a kidney stone. In the case of an older woman asked about her favorite president, the double hangs up a gigantic portrait of Richard Nixon. This technique makes it impossible for us to take the film seriously. It’s simply too silly.
Yet the film never fully embraces its light-hearted silliness to overcome its deficiencies. There are too many oddly placed adult jokes—did you know that you can smell women ovulating?—and faux-Sorkin discussions on meaty philosophy. Perhaps the best scene in the movie involves Sutree having an ontological discussion with Rev. Stuart Halloway (Rob Locke), an ecclesiastical gourmand who uses an onion as a metaphor for how we view the universe and ourselves. It’s so moving one briefly forgets the abominable subplot involving Ram Tambel (Sid Veda), one of Sutree’s colleagues, and his disastrous attempts to woo a white woman like he was Fisher Stevens in Short Circuit 2 (1988).
Offensive AND Superfluous: Ram Tambel is also endemic of one of the film’s biggest problems: its overbearing scope and length. There was no reason for 96 Souls to be over 90 minutes. But it staggers along for almost two hours (and feels like three). There are too many tertiary characters with their own storylines that contribute absolutely nothing. Key among them is the obnoxiously named Bazement Tape (Toyin Moses), one of the more unfortunate African-American characters in recent cinematic memory. Despite having the second biggest portrait on the film’s poster, her character is completely superfluous. After discovering her in an alleyway, the homeless Bazement Tape shanghais Sutree into helping her locate her missing mother. True, Sutree uses her as an important test subject for gauging the extent of his super-sight, but one wonders why Jacobs needed the extra character for this when Sutree already had a perfectly good estranged wife sitting around. To make matters worse, Jacobs writes Bazement Tape like she’s a black maid from old Hollywood. She repeatedly mispronounces the word “algorithms” as “Al Gore-isms” and pluralizes some of her verbs (“I knows it in my bones!”).
Overall: 96 Souls has no idea what it wants to be. Its pacing doesn’t match its whiz-bang pulp preposterousness, and it’s too tonally erratic. But worst of all, it’s boring. And that’s the kiss of death for a film about super-powers.
Featured Image: Gravitas Ventures