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"Pontypool" Review: The Word on Terror

Updated on June 6, 2021
Sam Shepards profile image

Hi, I'm Sam, I love movies. My main interests are science fiction and zombie movies. I also enjoy pessimistic and survival films a lot.

In the small Canadian town of Pontypool, a strange and unexplained epidemic has begun to plague its inhabitants. Transmitted through speech, there are words that when spoken, heard and understood, have begun to have a devastating effect on the listener.

Yes, think of the vocal cord parasite of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, which was most likely inspired by this film.

At first, the “conversationalist” (as director Bruce McDonald calls them to avoid the very general term “zombie”) begin to repeat the infected word. Those words, apparently, are usually in English language and are terms of endearment. After a while, the language of the conversationalist begins to scramble, avoiding them to express clearly.

The final horrendous stage is a complete animal and lethally basic understanding impulse. The victim desperately seeks to get out of the situation by making way chewing another person’s mouth.

Of course, the outbreak generates dozens of horrendous killings, total chaos, and a military intervention that seems to escalate to total bombing-annihilation.

But we don’t actually see any of that.

The entire film takes place inside a local radio station, where the popular radio announcer Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie), along with his producer Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle) and technical operator Laurel-Ann (Georgina Reilly) are receiving reports of what happens as they share it with their listeners.

Because Pontypool, in a highly intelligent narrative move, prefers not to show us what’s happening, but to make us imagine the situation. The movie moves like the virus: We hear words and we make sense of them.

The narrative stunt works in many ways. First of all, very pragmatically, the device allows telling a story about the end of the world with minimum budget and a single location. It also replicates narratively the same virus and its lethal semiotics. And it’s also a small love letter to literature and to those worlds created by the imagination when reading words. The literary references sprinkled throughout the film (Snow Crash, Norman Mailer) are not gratuitous.

The inspiration that the 1939 radio drama The War of the Worlds (by Orson Welles) has in this film is evident. Pontypool is about the destructive power of speculation and how panic can forge realities. Terrorism and the culture of fear spread through the media.

This is about the power of words and the responsibility to wield them. There is a subtle criticism of the role of the media in spreading misinformation, generating opinion matrices and prioritizing which facts deserve to be shared.

But Pontypool is not a moralistic accusing finger. The true frame of the horror suggested is that the human being, by nature, needs to make sense of what he/she sees, sometimes associating decontextualized facts and words, until creating theories that could become personal and public realities.

It’s all about the confirmation bias of Norman Mailer’s theory that is mentioned a couple of times in the movie. The need of our brain to order incomplete and unrelated information in times of emergencies and interpret it as coherent.

Who unleashed the virus (accidentally or incidentally)? The government? God? In any case, the premise of attacking our main communication mechanism and in the process prevent us from following our natural path is a loose horror reinterpretation of the Tower of Babel.

Pontypool is not a well-known movie for a reason. Yes, its first half is a master class on building suspense, but in the end, the ambition of the story ends up defeating the execution a little. The characters sometimes have a humorous tone that doesn’t fit the context. The spectator’s confusion is reasonable. The musical score can reach unbearable levels, even drowning the dialogues.

And yes, there is a great possibility that the movie does all this on purpose, to reaffirm its main plot.

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Because then is that confusing post-credits scene.

That scene is there to evidently turn Pontypool into a cult movie. That coda elevates the film in narrative terms. There are dozens of different interpretations about its meaning. Is it a meta-vaccine to make us understand nothing and thus making us immune to the semiotic virus? Is this a look at a future where the rules of language have had to be modified so much that the same reality is perceived differently?

Is it a final joke towards us, the viewers, who–emulating Norman Mailer’s theory–has no other option than to try to make sense of that last scene with the rest of the film?

With that post-credits scene, Pontypool seemed to strategically evade a detailed explanation of its rules, but at least it does so with a great sense of humor: using his main rule of changing the meaning of the words to “save” our lives.

In any case, Pontypool is one of those films that although very simple technically, encourage extensive and delicious discussions about its plot and meaning. That, plus the nerve-breaking direction of Bruce McDonald and the magnetic performance of Stephen McHattie, places this movie on the select “must-watch” list.

Movie Details

Title: Ponypool

Release Year: 2008

Director(s): Bruce McDonald

Actors: Stephen McHattie, Lisa Houle, Georgina Reilly, a.o.

4 stars for Pontypool

© 2019 Sam Shepards

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