This weekend, to mixed critical reception Gore Verbinski’s first movie since 2013’s The Lone Ranger released to theaters. A Cure for Wellness offers both beautiful and grotesque visuals, but fans of 2008’s BioShock should pay attention for another reason. Verbinski was the director who almost brought Rapture to film.
It was actually this review of the film, and the comments on it, which first got me thinking about this. Toward the end of the review they point out that, while not jazzed about it as a movie, they’d love it as a game. It has tonal similarities, including the climax. The comments pointed out, Gore Verbinski was working on a video game adaptation, not too far in the past. BioShock.
It would be hyperbolic to claim that A Cure for Wellness is simply a repurposed BioShock film, and I don’t intend to do that. The things the movie has in common with the game are largely tone, and imagery. Despite being set present day, the asylum/resort/spa looks out of the middle of the twentieth century, and the sensory deprivation chamber used in one major scene looks straight out of Rapture. When a character looks out a floor to ceiling window only to see bodies floating, suspended in water, it definitely feels like something out of Rapture.
However, there are a number of interesting parallels between the two plot wise as well, and I don’t think it’s crazy to suggest that Verbinski, who says that BioShock was cancelled “eight weeks from filming” might have worked elements he had planned for one project into another, similar film.
A Cure for Wellness is about a mysterious secluded health resort for the super-rich at the foot of the swiss alps, where clients check in, but they never seem to check out. They like it there, so who would ever want to leave? Dane DeHaan plays Lockhart, an employee who is sent to return his boss, who suddenly announced he would never be coming back, from the spa.
One of the most important elements of A Cure for Wellness is water. Jason Isaac’s character Dr. Volmer explains that the resort is built upon an aquifer unlike any other in the world, and that its waters contain unique medicinal properties. At this spa, people drink the water, they swim in the water, they get blasted by hoses with the water, seemingly all they is somehow related to the water.
Late in the film it’s revealed exactly what the special properties of this water are. The species of eel that lives in the aquifer only lives a dozen or so years anywhere else in the world. Here though, in this water, they can survive two hundred. The water is exceptionally toxic to humans, unless properly distilled. This distillation, unfortunately, can only be done by using the human body (somehow), killing those unfortunate enough to sign up for an extended stay. Also, brainwashing them (I guess), making them perfectly willing and enthusiastic hosts. The movie has some plot problems here, if that’s not totally clear.
The use of water isn’t quite the same in BioShock. While it is, obviously, a major force at play in the oceanic city of Rapture, there’s nothing particularly special about the water itself. What is special is the species of slug that lives on the ocean floor in this particular part of the world. The slugs produce something called ADAM, which can be used to genetically rewrite humans, making anything possible. Unfortunately, the amount of ADAM attained from the slugs is marginal at best, so the city comes up with another method. Take the useless parasites feeding off society (read: harmless orphaned girls) and give them a purpose in life (read: turn them into delusional “Little Sisters” who live to harvest ADAM).
The eels in particular raise my eyebrow here. While the eels are a major motif of the film, they really don’t amount to much by the end of the movie. They’re there, and it always seems like the reveal is going to be “the eels are magic,” but instead it is simply, “the water is magic, the eels are lucky.” They look gross, and they can definitely get under your skin, but they really don’t amount to much, other than imagery. Imagery which was, perhaps, first designed with large sea slugs in mind?
For that matter, using the most helpless among us (the children, and the sick elderly) to refine a powerful, but impractical resource into something worth its weight in gold? It’s abstracted out just one level too far to be obvious, or blatant, but it is certainly very similar.
What about the little sisters, then? Another massively important element to the BioShock brand? Well, there’s something reminiscent of them in A Cure for Wellness too, the character Hannah, who despite being played by 23 year old Mia Goth, is stated to be developmentally stunted. She dresses, acts, and is treated like a little girl. Her father protecting her at all costs is a major element of the film.
On another note, probably the most famous moment in BioShock is the “would you kindly” moment. Spurred on the whole game by seemingly the only friendly face in Rapture, a man named Atlas, you confront the evil man behind it all, Andrew Ryan. Only to find out, nothing has been as it seemed. You aren’t who you think you are, you’ve been a brainwashed puppet the whole time working for Atlas, actually criminal mastermind Frank Fontaine, who wants Ryan out of the way to rule Rapture himself. It’s a brilliant ending. So good, in fact, that it’s easy to forget there’s a quarter of the game left afterward.
Having finally mostly caught on to the villain’s plan, our protagonist in A Cure for Wellness is captured, brainwashed, and finds himself like everyone else there. Second lead Hannah closes out an arc regarding a music box ballerina “finally having woken up,” and DeHaan turns to the camera, smiles, and repeats the villainous mantra, “why would anyone want to leave?” The camera zooms out, the music soars sinister tones, and the audience prepares to leave their two hour film. Then the movie just kind of keeps going for another half an hour.
Eventually we wind up at, essentially, a final boss fight. As the villain marries his own daughter and attempts to rape her (there’s a *lot* of things going on in this movie), our main character lights the evil Batcave on fire, and scuffles with him as the film’s setting is engulfed by flame. Our villain, far stronger and healthier than DeHaan is (he’s been doping on eel juice), rips off his own face to reveal his real, terrifying ghoul visage, and pushes our protagonist closer and closer to a pool of carnivorous eels, before being promptly being dispatched by aforementioned daughter, Hannah.
This not only feels like a final boss battle, it plays out very similarly to the final boss fight from BioShock. When you finally find Atlas, he’s been disfigured by using ADAM to reconstruct himself so heavily. He’s stronger than you, and is only actually stopped, moments before killing you, by the little sisters.
A Cure for Wellness isn’t just BioShock with the names changed, Verbinski isn’t even the screenwriter for the film (though he does have a “story” credit, for what that’s worth), but it gives us a tantalizing glimpse at the Bioshock film that almost was. It’s not that hard to swap out the halls of an asylum for the cramped tunnels of Rapture. It’s not that hard to see a world where the movie features a slug bath, rather than an eel bath.
A lot of these pieces of imagery feel like they certainly came from a mind that spent a lot of time thinking about ways to make water scary, whether that was circa 2011, or 2016. A Cure for Wellness takes inspiration from a lot of different sources, and wears most of it on its sleeve, but after seeing the movie, I have come to suspect one of those sources might’ve been a film that never quite got made.