By Preston Wilder
We open with Vincent (Jesse Eisenberg) trying to fast-talk an investor, which is something Vincent (and Jesse Eisenberg) does well. Vincent needs money – lots of money – to build a four-inch fibre-optic cable from Kansas to the New York stock exchange, and the investor is dubious. It is indeed a risky proposition – but now imagine if you’re trying to find investors for a film about building a four-inch fibre-optic cable from Kansas to the New York stock exchange. The fact that The Hummingbird Project – a Canadian/Belgian co-production – exists at all is some kind of miracle, let alone the fact that such an unlikely movie is showing in local cinemas.
This is a film about drilling and algorithms, with a special guest appearance by optical regenerators. It’s also a film about Wall Street, which writer-director Kim Nguyen feels should be burned to the ground (can you blame him?). The fibre-optic cable isn’t just “a favour to the Earth,” as Vincent puts it – it’s part of a financial-engineering plan that’ll make him, his cousin Anton (Alexander Skarsgard), and of course their investors very rich. Information passes down such cables (on the price of a stock, say) and the first trader to obtain that info stands to make a killing; it takes 17 milliseconds for data to travel from Kansas to NYC – but the new cable will be able to do it in 16 milliseconds, “one single flap of a hummingbird’s wings”, giving certain traders a competitive advantage. Never mind the Avengers saving the world from Thanos; you can build a thriller on much subtler differences.
Is The Hummingbird Project actually a thriller? Hard to say, but it’s very absorbing, maybe because what’s at stake – the nuts and bolts of the project – is mapped so precisely. (It’s actually closer to a heist movie, only with the heist taking up the whole movie.) There are technical issues: the only way the project can succeed is if the line runs straight, as the crow flies, no exceptions, meaning hundreds of landowners must be convinced to allow the cable to pass through their property – and of course drilling must be done in a straight line through swamps, mountains and national parks. There are external obstacles – a major health problem and a vengeful ex-boss (Salma Hayek, grey-haired and formidable) – though they seem a bit contrived. Above all, there are character flaws: Vincent’s increasing hysteria and the awkwardness of Anton, who’s eccentric verging on autistic.
This is a juicy role, and Skarsgard (whose CV ranges from indies to Tarzan to Big Little Lies) attacks it with relish, from the hunched-over body language and reluctance to make eye contact to withdrawn, balding Anton’s moments of tenderness – he bonds over atomic structure with his science-nerd little daughter – and deep-down decency. He’s a genius coder, trying to strip down the code even further (what Vincent isn’t telling investors is that the 16-millisecond target hasn’t quite been achieved yet) and getting increasingly flustered; there are “granularity issues,” he tells his puzzled cousin. This is a film about drilling, algorithms, optical regenerators and granularity issues.
To be honest, it’s not quite convincing. The last five minutes are dull, which doesn’t help, and it’s easy to pick holes in retrospect. Isn’t Anton too good to be true, ping-ponging between cloistered Rain Man and functional family man as the script dictates? Maybe. Isn’t Vincent quite a thin character, really just a motormouth with a dusting of daddy issues (he has nightmares of an “old man chasing me”, tying in with the domineering dad who gets mentioned a few times)? Maybe. Isn’t the dialogue sometimes weak, like for instance the “positive shit” story told by the chief engineer? It’s no Tarantino, that’s for sure. Aren’t the workings of Wall Street – and Salma’s ruthless villainy – a little overdone? Maybe. Isn’t the film’s agenda a bit transparent, above all in the dignified Amish man who won’t give permission for the cable because “we don’t believe that making things faster makes them better”? Definitely.
This is not a big movie; it doesn’t feel endlessly polished and script-doctored, nor does it seem to have a very big budget. Its scope isn’t very big either, focusing closely on one troubled, highly specialised project – but that close attention is also why it works scene-by-scene and besides, as we’re told near the end, “It’s not the destination [that counts], it’s the people we meet and the lessons we learn”. Vincent calls the project a David-and-Goliath story – and The Hummingbird Project has a touch of that too, not least in the deeply unlikely fact of its very existence. If you’re looking for investors, an esoteric subject is usually a hard sell. If you’re looking for adventurous filmgoers, though, a hard sell can turn into a selling point.
DIRECTED BY Kim Nguyen
STARRING Jesse Eisenberg, Alexander Skarsgard, Salma Hayek
Canada/Belgium 2018 110 mins