If you want to spend this weekend contemplating the horror of madness through mind control, you have two movies to choose from: Paprika (Sony Pictures Classics), a brainy sci-fi fantasy from anime master Satoshi Kon, and Bug (Lionsgate), an icky psychological thriller from veteran horror director William Friedkin (The Exorcist). Which film you pick should depend on whether you want to leave the theater saying “Dude!” or “Ew.” Both are perfectly legitimate post-film utterances, and both are fully earned by these movies, which, like their protagonists, are brave, imperfect, and occasionally insane.
Paprika’s story line combines elements of Blade Runner and Wim Wenders’ strange apocalyptic fantasy Until the End of the World, both of which imagined the damage that could be wrought by a machine that invades human memories and dreams. Paprika’s version of this device is the DC Mini, a chic-looking headset being developed by a psychiatric institute as a therapeutic aid. Atsuko Chiba (voiced by Megumi Hayashibara), a buttoned-up female shrink at the clinic, uses the DC Mini to help her clients access their subconscious through dreams. She also occasionally appears in those dreams in the form of her sexy alter ego, Paprika.
A researcher absconds with the DC Mini and begins using it to control people’s dreams from afar, resulting in an outbreak of madness at the clinic. Suddenly, trusted colleagues are going googly-eyed and shouting out things like, “The 24-bit eggplant will be analyzed!” and, “The safety net of the ocean is nonlinear!” As Atsuko and her co-workers search through their own and others’ dreams for clues to track down the missing device, one powerful megadream begins to subsume all others: the image of a riotous parade of appliances, puppets, umbrellas, machines, and other detritus barreling down the streets of Tokyo. As the film goes on, this dream recurs in ever more elaborate form, suggesting a multiplicity of meanings: Is it a reflection of the collective unconscious? A critique of consumer culture, including movies like the one we’re watching? One thing is for sure: The über-dream is both gorgeously animated, in Kon’s shimmering, hyperreal style, and sickeningly scary.
The metaphysical trickery of Paprika—what’s real, what’s imagined, who’s dreaming whom—would lose its charm if explained in too much detail. True, the final battle-for-Tokyo scene veers toward the grandiose, and the Möbius-strip story logic has some holes in it. But I’ll bet it’s been a while since you’ve seen a movie, animated or not, that skips this nimbly around the viewer’s brain.
You’ll also leave Bug feeling like things are skipping around your brain—not ideas, but the “rogue aphids” that Peter Evans (Michael Shannon) is convinced have invaded his bloodstream as part of an Army experiment. Peter, a disturbed Gulf War vet who seems to suffer from some form of Morgellons disease, befriends Agnes White (Ashley Judd), a lonely waitress living in a run-down Oklahoma motel. This place is a real fleabag—at least according to Peter, who soon has the vulnerable, needy Agnes in thrall to his paranoid notions about subepidermal eggs sacs and military surveillance.
The folie-à-deux romance genre is a weakness of mine, so I was willing to forgive Bug its flaws, including a greatly abridged transition between the leisurely opening act and Aggie and Peter’s whirlwind downward spiral. Judd’s character, in particular, is set up so painstakingly in the first half that it’s a shame to see her disappear so quickly down the sinkhole of schizophrenia in the second. Ashley Judd is a surprisingly craftsmanlike actress, building her character through the details (Aggie’s slovenly dishwashing technique, for example, says volumes about her depression).
Bug’s screenplay is adapted by Tracy Letts from his own stage play, and it’s unapologetically theatrical, sticking to the huis clos of that motel room with little attempt to open on to the world outside. Friedkin has spent much of the last decade directing operas onstage, and there’s an unquestionably operatic aura to the doomed couple’s final Liebestod in the foil-wrapped hell their room has become.
Michael Shannon, who played the role of Peter onstage, is appropriately eerie at the outset but drifts toward an uncinematic hamminess as his character’s madness deepens. Harry Connick Jr. appears intermittently as Aggie’s ex-con ex-husband, and late in the game, there’s a confusing interlude with Brian F. O’Byrne as an Army doctor who’s searching for Peter. But essentially, this is a movie about the dangers of letting love rob you of your reason and cut you off from the world, and, bugs in the bloodstream or not, who hasn’t been there?